Principal Karen Tarbell sees to the heart of middle school students, beyond surface, sometimes-perplexing behavior to their quest for identity.
“It’s like going into your closet and trying on a whole bunch of different clothes — that’s what they do in middle school,” said the leader of Parker’s Cimarron Middle School. “Their brains are growing. Their bodies are growing at an incredible rate. They’re fragile, even more so than first-graders.
“They need adults in their environment that like them in spite of all this, that will say, ‘Wow, I bet that’s really hard for you.’”
Tarbell’s dedication to those middle schoolers earned her the 2013 Administrator of the Year Apple Award, the Douglas County School District’s annual recognition of top staff.
“Karen is a passionate leader who recognizes that to be the best, you must always put children first,” said Mark Schaffer, DCSD’s director of middle schools.
The honor is a sweet way to mark Tarbell’s final year at DCSD. She is retiring in the spring after 25 years in the district.
“Cimarron’s in a great place,” she said. “I have two beautiful grandchildren I want to spend some time with. It’s just the right time for me to make a change.”
Tarbell worked first as a Highlands Ranch teacher, then as principal at Sierra Middle School. She found her niche in administration, and opened now 5-year-old Cimarron in 2008.
“I’ve never wanted to do much else than be a principal,” she said. “This is where you have the most impact.”
Middle school also is the age at which she believes educators have the most impact.
“I think (middle school students) can get ignored,” she said. “They turn out to be great adults, but they just have to go through this.”
“This” is an age of fluctuating hormones when everyday incidents can seem life-changing.
“You want to give them hope for the future,” Tarbell said. “They’ll make a mistake and sometimes they’ll think it’s the end of the world. And I say, ‘The great thing about life is tomorrow’s a do-over. I guarantee you tomorrow, a week from now, a month from now, you’re going to be presented with a similar situation. And you’ve got an opportunity to make a different choice’.”
Tarbell deflected much of the credit for her award and Cimarron’s success to her staff.
“This isn’t a solo act,” she said. “I have a lot of people that make me look good.”