Dani Allen and Rona Ager have different roles and responsibilities within the Washougal School District (WSD), but they both want the same thing: to see students flourish.
Their efforts were recently recognized as not only good, but heroic.
Allen, an art teacher at Jemtegaard Middle School (JMS), and Ager, a Washougal parent and booster club member, were honored as “Real Heroes of Clark County” at an Oct. 17 ceremony by the Learn Here Project, an initiative of Identity Clark County, a Vancouver-based nonprofit organization.
“It’s a great honor,” Alllen said, “but I was surprised because this is my job. I do it because I love it. I wake up every morning knowing I’m going to work and putting in 110 percent. I just expect that from myself, and to be recognized for it is awesome. But it’s hard for me to accept it because I do feel that there are people that do way more than I do.”
The Learn Here Program recognizes educational staff members and volunteers in partnership with educational institutions for their efforts to serve Clark County’s school communities.
“It was weird (to receive the honor), in a way,” Ager said. “I was surprised, but very honored on behalf of all of the volunteers who put in a lot of time during school, after school and on weekends to help make things happen in the school district.”
Allen started working for WSD in 2007 as a special education teacher at Hathaway Elementary School. She then moved on to Washougal High School (WHS), where she taught special education for several years before accepting an arts position at JMS in 2014.
Allen has partnered with the city of Washougal and the Washougal Art and Culture Alliance to showcase student art through projects like park murals, City Hall displays and Washougal Youth Art Month galleries. Her Club 8 students recently completed a mural on a retaining wall at the intersection of “D” and Durgan streets in downtown Washougal.
“She cultivates an appreciation for different artistic styles and media with a program that engages youth in art that is relevant and meaningful to them,” according to a news release issued by Vancouver-based Educational Service District 112. “Students share that Allen helped them understand art as an idea, and grow an awareness of the importance and beauty of their ideas, and that she helps build their confidence, supports them when they are not having a good day, and teaches them that they can do amazing things with their lives.”
Allen accomplishes those things by emphasizing positivity and kindness.
“I tell the students that every day is a new day,” she said. “I want the kids to know that they can be mad at me one day and I’m not going to hold a grudge or give up on them. I tell kids that if they make a mistake, it’s OK, and they can start over the next day. With the kids that are the toughest, you have to find something really good that they do to focus on. For some of these kids, getting on the bus and coming to school every day is a huge accomplishment. If you can’t find something good, you’re probably in it for the wrong reasons.”
Allen pays close attention to the mental health of her students, who fill out a “daily check-in form” that asks them to rate how they’re feeling on a scale of one to 10. Students have the option of writing why they feel that way, and are asked what they’re going to do for another student that day.
“Especially today with the technology that’s available, kids can get lost, and I want every kid to know that they matter and they’re important,” she said. “But you can’t fake that because kids will see right through it. You have to be genuine. I let the kids know that my classroom is a safe space and that I can help them.”
Allen created a Unified sports program at WHS in 2014, first with soccer, then basketball. She hopes to start flag football and bowling teams in the near future. Unified sports teams include students with special needs and abilities (athletes) and general education students (partners).
“Coaching Unified sports has changed my life,” Allen said. “It lets me see how blessed I am to have all of these kids in my life, disabilities or no disabilities. They’re helping teach other out, forming relationships, making connections. Every year I cry, and it’s not a sad cry. It’s more like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at what’s going on here. These kids are amazing.’ It gives these kids a chance to be a part of the high school experience. The part that touches me the most is that the kids learn that they all have something to offer.”
Ager has been volunteering in classrooms as part of the Gause Elementary Boosters for nearly 10 years.
“She is known for spearheading and taking the lead on numerous booster projects, and is always available to help where needed around school,” the news release stated.
Ager became involved when her older son, Zach, now a sophomore at WHS, was a student at Gause Elementary School (GES). Her younger son Derek is currently a fifth-grader at GES.
“I love the connection I have with the community, the other parents, the staff members and administrative employees,” she said. “(That connection) pulls the community tighter. The saying is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and I believe that.”
Ager created and oversees GES’ grade-level enrichment program and booster-supported assemblies. She also created a “science night” event for GES students that now includes a science fair competition.
“Science and math aren’t my strong suit, actually, and that’s partly why I’m so passionate about it,” she said. “I have seen now as an adult what I missed out on. There’s opportunities for people to not end up like me in that regard.”
She has organized volunteers to support booster and classroom activities; supervised bulletin boards and display case communications; led box-top and label collection fundraisers; enhanced and organized the Mustang Market student store; and created and managed a birthday display case.
When GES teacher Alisa Vail passed away in 2016, Ager organized the purchase, installation and unveiling of a “buddy bench” to honor her.
Ager also leads “Mustang Hall of Fame” celebrations, which reward positive student behavior; arranges Veterans Day assemblies at GES and JMS; and lends assistance to WSD’s Sport-a-Thon, Family Fitness Night, Artists in Residency and Teacher Wish List programs.
“I want to find creative ways to enrich students’ academic (experiences),” she said. “When you see something that the student body would benefit from, you step up and try to make it happen. The last couple of years I’ve found ways to bring things to schools for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to those opportunities, and that’s been rewarding.”