Principal embraces opportunities to serve

By Drew Myron

Kim Yasui was born and raised in Odell and was once a student at Mid Valley Elementary School, where she now works as principal.

Mid Valley Elementary in Odell could be called the school that rarely closes. Serving 500 students, the school opens with morning’s first light and doesn’t close until after dinner and into the night.

“We model our school as a community building to be open as much as possible for as many as possible,” says Principal Kim Yasui.

The school day begins at 7 a.m. with child care to serve the needs of parents working early shifts at area fruit-processing plants. Nearly every child receives free breakfast. Free or reduced-price lunch is provided to nearly every student, along with free fruit and veggie snacks in the afternoon and free dinner during the after-school program. The school is open year-round and serves as a hub for all of Hood River County School District’s summer students. Even the library, which lends to both students and parents, is open year-round.

“We have kids who need a lot of services, and we need to be that source of support so we work to keep the doors open,” Kim says.

With its dramatic economic gaps, the Hood River area is a study in contrasts. While downtown Hood River features the affluence of booming tourism, poverty rates soar just a few miles beyond the bustle.

Across the county—from Odell to Parkdale to Cascade Locks—roughly 70 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, which is a standard economic indicator. Many have limited or no access to computers or other academic tools. Thirty percent of Hood River County is Hispanic—though the number swells during agriculture season—and 85 percent of Mid Valley families speak Spanish. These socio-economic disparities, says the school district, illustrate the need to develop programs that serve all students.

As the community’s primary gathering place in which a variety of backgrounds come together, Mid Valley Elementary School has embraced the opportunity to learn from, and about, one another.

Cristian Sonato, left, and Alejandro Solano share a lively lunchtime. Free and reduced-price lunch is provided to nearly every student, along with free snacks in the afternoon and free dinner during the after-school program.

Along with extended school hours and community services, Mid Valley stands apart for its approach to language and culture. It’s the only grade school in the district offering bi-literacy education with dual-language classrooms.

About a decade ago, while Portland schools were offering bilingual education, Mid-Valley educators wanted to do more to address their students’ specific needs. In Odell, students are learning English and growing skills in their native languages. With the goal of developing bilingual fluency, all Mid Valley students have daily experiences and instruction in a second language and culture.

“We want to honor the language their parents are speaking,” Kim says. “I think it’s made us more competitive. We’re shifting the culture and changing the dynamics.”

The reward, she says, is students are prepared for a life in which they get to choose what they want to do.

“If they want to work in the orchards, great,” she says. “If they want to move away, great. But we want them to be equipped, prepared and have the ability to make their own choices.”

The program has proven so popular there is a lottery system for enrollment.

Kim, 46, was born and raised in Odell and was a student at the school she now leads. She attended Hood River Valley High School, earned a Spanish degree from the University of Oregon and a master’s in education from Pacific University.

Kim returned to Mid Valley Elementary and taught migrant students and English language learners for 12 years. In 2010, she acquired her administrative license from Portland State University.

In 2012, Kim was awarded the Women of Distinction honor from Soroptimist International.

Melissa Figueroa Manzo enjoys lunch with friends.

“Kim has made it her mission to ensure that every child at our school, regardless of socioeconomic status, native language or family dynamic, has the opportunity to pursue greatness,” wrote Peggy Dills Kelter, a colleague who nominated Kim for the award.

In 2015, Kim was named principal of Mid Valley Elementary School.

“There are a lot of memories in this building,” she says. “I walk into the music room and the smell brings me back, or a student’s grandparent will call me Kimmy, and I haven’t been called that since I was little.”

It’s fitting that Kim—with a Japanese father and Finnish-Irish mother—leads a school embracing cultural diversity. She knows the pain of hiding your heritage.

Her great-grandfather, Masuo Yasui, was a first-generation Japanese American who was a farmer, business owner and prominent community leader in Hood River. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was forced from his own farm—Yasui Orchards in Odell-and spent four years in an internment camp.

He was among 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry forced from their homes and sent to detention camps following President Franklin Roosevelt’s order. After the war, the Yasui family was able to retain a small portion of their farm. Kim’s parents, Philip (Flip) and Maija, are the third generation to own and operate the family orchard.

“With my own grandparents, I could see how they did not want to emphasize their Japanese culture,” Kim says. “Historically, it wasn’t safe. I couldn’t fix it for them, but we can learn from this and do things differently now.”