When Dave Urquhart was principal of Summerville High School in 2002 and awaiting heart transplant surgery in a Stanford-area hospital, he heard that a staff member’s daughter who had been diagnosed with leukemia had returned to school to receive her high school diploma.
Urquhart couldn’t make the ceremony, but he, along with the entire Summerville High School community, was moved by her courage.
“That was a thrill for everyone,” he said.
That’s one memory Urquhart will take into retirement after 41 years as an educator in Tuolumne County. He will retire on June 30 as superintendent of Big Oak Flat - Groveland School District, after serving in six schools in the Mother Lode.
When Urquhart started teaching at Sonora High School in 1977, “it was a simpler time in education,” he said.
There were no computer systems and students’ grade point averages were calculated with an adding machine. Calculators were a newfangled invention. Everything in the classroom, for teachers and students alike, was written by hand.
“Just writing the assignments up took a long time. We didn't have photocopiers, we had ditto machines,” he said, describing a crank-controlled machine that rolled print on sheets of paper.
Urquhart, 64, worked at Calaveras High School and Cassina High school for a year each, five years as a math and science teacher for seventh and eighth graders at Jamestown Elementary School. He served in an administrative role at Summerville High School in 1985, principal of the school for 10 years beginning in 2002, and then superintendent-principal of the Big Oak Flat - Groveland School District and Don Pedro High School. In 2016, he took over as district superintendent.
“So, I’ve been around the county,” Urquhart said, laughing. “It's been a good 41 years. I have no complaints. All good working places and locations.”
Through the years, Urquhart has seen more expectations and responsibility put onto schools to help “raise kids,” he said.
“We are not just teaching English, math, science and history, we are also teaching emotional support and financial support and food for kids and all things that weren't much of a factor 40 years ago.”
Students back then had less access to information, socialization devices, and distractions. “Even the curriculum wasn’t as complicated. We were left a little more to our own devices about how we taught,” he said.
And in order to keep up with the pace of more technology integrated and technology-savvy education, Urquhart said he has had to be adaptable.
In any role, an educator must be interpersonal and student goal oriented, he said.
Cultural or contextual circumstances notwithstanding, Urquhart said that as an educator he sought to find the best solutions for specific students emotional, behavioral, academic or health problems while also advocating for a student-body at large.
“There are so many different expectations that people have for schools that it is really hard to find the way to address everyone,” he said. “The takeaway is, if you’re passionate about what you do you’re going to enjoy your work and every day is going to be a good day. I’ve come away from my career just enjoying the whole thing.”
In the future, those responsibilities would only mount, he added. Not only will administrators have to deal with math scores and limited budgets, but also with the role of schools as surrogate guardians for students.
The Big Oak Flat - Groveland school district is fewer than 300 students, with about 42 students enrolled at Tioga High School, 48 students enrolled at Don Pedro High School, 200 students at Tenaya Elementary School, and four students at Moccasin Community School.
That meant getting to know students personally, Urquhart said, and working closely with them to assist in their achievement.
“Individual challenges, those are the biggest challenges, at least to me,” he said. “Being in a superintendent role is challenging every day because there are different issues that come up constantly. Our goal is to have students be successful and work hard but sometimes it's challenging to get some students to do that.”
It brought him the most pride to see students move out of high school and into successful careers and college opportunities.
“I think that the positive memories that I have, and there are many, the employees, the school board, the whole bit, the most gratifying is when you see students that maybe are working at capacity get a scholarship and go on to college and see success,” he said. “There have been so many students at those little high schools that the staff has worked with and they have come out with confidence.”
His most notable memory at Big Oak Flat - Groveland was the institution of the Get Focused Stay Focused program, a career and post-high school educational planning program for elementary and high school students, he said.
Counseling support had been added throughout the district, as well as art therapy programs at Tenaya Elementary School and a dental hygiene program for students at Don Pedro High School.
Urquhart also noted that in 1996, he and a group of teachers and administrators started the senior project requirement at Summerville High School, which eventually proliferated to all the other county high schools.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “we said we have to get this going. But once it started everyone could see the benefit of it and it's been so positive ever since.”
Urquhart’s replacement has already been announced. Tenaya Elementary Principal Wynette Hilton will take over while continuing to oversee Tenaya Elementary.
“She is well known in the community and has worked at the school for over 20 years. She knows the system and how it works and will be a really great superintendent.”
Urquhart said his career and his personal life has always been woven together.
Urquhart and his wife, Teree, met during his first year at Sonora High School, he said. She also worked in county education for 39 years, and retired a few years ago, he said.
Also important to him was the community support that rallied around him when he needed the heart transplant.
“I felt supported in all the different schools I’ve worked in, and I’ve worked with some great people over the years. My whole time up here has been very positive and I felt very supported by everyone.”
He said after June 30 he will be retired for good.
“People are asking if I’m going to come back at some point, but that's not my plan. It's been a great career.”
In his retirement, Urquhart said he plans to spend time with his wife, daughter and grandson. If the family does find the time to travel, they would like to visit Scotland, he added, and make a stop at the Urquhart Castle, a medieval-era stone fortress located above the famous Loch Ness.