Dewrell learns on the fly to assume Tatem principal role

Cline will retire, but not before providing guidance to successor.

There’s a leadership change coming at the head of Tatem Elementary School this summer. Valerie Cline will conclude her three-year tenure as principal, and a three-decade-long career in education, by formalizing her retirement later this month. But the transition won’t be a sudden one. 

To help new Principal Kimberly Dewrell ease into the lead role on Glover Avenue, Cline elected to stay on for the month of July, providing wisdom, guidance and help wherever necessary.

Assistant Superintendent Gino Priolo made the initial announcement and introduced Dewrell to the public during the board of education’s May 27 meeting. Dewrell was chosen as the cream of the crop over a field of 65 applicants.

“Of course, to be a successful candidate in a position like this, you have to know the ins and outs of elementary school,” Priolo said at the meeting. “What really separated Kim from the other candidates was her level of passion, and concern she had. That came through very clearly.”

Dewrell has been an educator for 16 years, teaching a variety of subjects for fifth and sixth graders at schools in Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey. Most recently, she served as assistant principal for the Upper Middle School in the Montgomery Township School District of Somerset County. She earned her bachelor’s in elementary education from Oral Roberts University and her master’s degree in instructional leadership from Towson University.

“This is only my second day on the job, but the community has been incredibly welcoming, warm, and very eager to assist and help in any way,” Dewrell said in a conversation with the Sun on July 7. 

“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few families who have stopped by the school so far,” she added. “I enjoy seeing the kids, even with their masks on, and that’s the kind of thing which gets me in gear for the new school year.”

 

That new school year might be two months away, but the work never stops. Summer is not as relaxing for administrators as it is for teachers and students. 

Dewrell said she benefits from the support of district administrators Priolo and Superintendent Chuck Klaus, along with her fellow elementary principals, Shannon Simkus from Central and Gerry Bissinger from Haddon. Dewrell also embraces the spirit of diving right in and getting to work.  

“I will say, starting from yesterday, I’ve certainly been hitting the ground running,” she admitted.

Dewrell is hardly taking the plunge unprepared. She has already had productive conversations with Cline, met with her in person, and spent a day in early June getting to know all the ins and outs of Tatem operations. The pair will cross paths later in the month for onboarding purposes and to ensure a smooth transition. 

“The day I visited, I saw everything from dropoff in the morning, to the daily routines for each class,” Dewrell explained. “I was able to visit every classroom so that there would be a quasi-familiar face to see, even with the mask on, and so (the kids) didn’t wonder where Ms. Cline went.

“I asked a lot of questions to the kids and about the kids, the usual ‘get to know you’ types of things.”

It was during this introduction that Cline formally shared with her students that she was retiring. Dewrell noted how, in every classroom, there was one child who inevitably mentioned that Cline looked so young, it was hard to believe she was retiring.

But time must march on. New children come into the district, and those who remain move up. Despite a growing checklist of things to work through from now until September, Dewrell spoke of what she hopes to see once teachers return and students again fill their classrooms.

“I would say that what I and other people are most looking forward to — and I don’t want to sound cliche — is coming back to school in as ‘normal’ a routine as possible. If there really is such a thing,” she noted. 

“Haddonfield did such a great job during the late stage of the pandemic, being open to in person classes from April. They were a beacon in the state in terms of doing things right.”

Dewrell is committed to applying the lessons learned both in the borough, and through her own experiences as an educator during COVID, to create the best environment for learning at Tatem. 

Although teachers and administrators alike had been stretched as far as they could go personally and professionally, they did not break, and became innovative regarding how to teach young minds that were also pushed to the brink as the social component of learning was altered.

“Right now, we’re trying to find cute ways, and new things to get kindergarten kids excited about coming into school,” Dewrell said. “Because it’s a new environment for them.”