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Principal Betsy DeCesaro Ensures that Haaff Remains a Family Affair

 Principal Betsy DeCesaro  Betsy DeCesaro always knew that she wanted to serve her hometown community of Pueblo, and believed nursing would be an ideal way to do that.

There was, however, a slight issue with that choice: the fact that she can’t stomach the sight of the blood.

A great thing, in hindsight, for the hundreds of young scholars whose lives have been impacted and bettered by this caring and understanding educator who now serves as Principal of Haaff Elementary School.

“My mom taught at East, Centennial and Roncalli, so I’ve always had that background in education,” Principal DeCesaro said. “I’m not sure I grew up wanting to be a teacher, but I spent a lot of time around our public school system. 

“And Pueblo has always been a very important part of my life: it made me who I am so I wanted to give back to our community.”

At what was then the University of Southern Colorado, Principal DeCesaro was in her third year of the nursing program when a random brush with her math professor changed the course of her life.

“I ran into him and he said, ‘How are you?’ Most people would say ‘Fine,’ and move on,” Principal DeCesaro said. “But I started crying and said, ‘I’m terrible. I don’t want to be a nurse. This is not for me.’”

The professor’s advice, although simple, proved in hindsight to be transformative.

“You can always change your major,” he told Principal DeCesaro.

And in that instance, she decided to make education her life’s work.

“A teacher was something I knew I could be,” Principal DeCesaro said. “It just took someone telling me that I could do what I wanted to do.”

Immediately, Principal DeCesaro shifted her major from nursing to Elementary Education with a minor in Psychology.

“I’ve always had a connection with young children,” she said. “When I was in high school, I did a lot of volunteer work in elementary schools.”

Within the Elementary Education pathway, Principal DeCesaro thrived. While in college, she did her fieldwork at Bradford Elementary School as well as at the school she one day would come to lead. 

“I did my student teaching at Bradford, under Principal Pat Gonzales,” Principal DeCesaro said. “She’s someone who has shaped my career and I really looked up to her.”

It was at Bradford that Principal DeCesaro officially began her career, teaching fourth grade.

“It was pretty scary,” she said of her first day before students. “But the nice thing was that I had student taught third grade at Bradford, and Principal Gonzales allowed me to loop my class.”

Under the guidance of watchful mentors, Principal DeCesaro quickly settled into teaching and found a warm and inviting home at Bradford.

“I thought I would just teach in my fourth-grade classroom at Bradford for 30 years,” Principal DeCesaro said. “I absolutely loved it there and loved the community. But one day, an opportunity presented itself to be a Media Specialist at Carlile Elementary School.”

With a knack for working with technology, the position was another good fit for Principal DeCesaro, who remained at Carlile for a decade.

“While I as at Carlile, the Principal, Elaine Madrid – who has probably been the biggest influence on my career in education – approached me and said, ‘Have you ever thought about being a Teacher in Charge, or becoming a Principal?’ 

“I hadn’t, but I looked up to Principal Madrid, because she was very creative and helped us achieve huge academic and achievement growth at Carlile. So I told her I would think about it.”

In her third year at Carlile, Principal DeCesaro became the Teacher in Charge, which afforded a number of additional opportunities, including the National Institute of School Leadership and the district’s “Aspiring Administrators” program. Principal DeCesaro also went on to earn a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership.

When the STEM curriculum was launched at Highland Park Elementary, Principal DeCesaro taught Technology within that program. After two years there, opportunity once again came knocking: this time at a school Principal DeCesaro was overtly familiar with.

At Haaff Elementary School, it was Principal DeCesaro’s husband Eric who had successfully served as the building leader. When he moved onto a central administrative position, the Principalship opened up.

“This school has been very important to our family,” Principal DeCesaro said of Haaff. “It was a community my husband and I both cared about: I grew up on this side of town and he put a lot of energy and effort into this school. So I applied.”

After a year serving in an Interim basis, Principal DeCesario was named Principal of the school, and has served in that capacity for 5 years.

“It was exciting,” she said of her first year as an Interim Principal. “It was my first chance to be a leader of a school. I’ve been very lucky in having a lot of mentors and support during my time with the district. At Haaff, Cheryl Madril, who has a long history of being a well-respected administrator, was my first Supervisor, and she took me under her wing and helped me learn what it takes to lead a school.”

Immediately, Principal DeCesaro felt as if she had returned home.

“I believe the fact that my husband was here before me brought some stability to Haaff,” she said. “In the beginning, no one had to miss a beat, because I didn’t have a learning curve of what the school was doing, or what the trajectory or strategies were.

“I already knew that, because it was something we talked about at dinner.”

At Haaff, individuality and autonomy are stressed, with each Tiger entrusted with setting the course for his or her educational journey.

“One thing we’ve always focused on here is student leadership,” Principal DeCesaro explained. “We are a Neighborhood School. We don’t have a STEM grant, or an Innovation grant, or anything like that. So we wanted to have a focus for our school and decided that was leadership.”

Serving as the foundation of that focus is the “7 Habits of Happy Kids,” which includes a “Can Do” attitude and “Begin with the End in Mind.”

“We want our students to take the lead in their education so that they can better the entire school,” Principal DeCesaro said. “And what was really important to me is that we focus on the ‘whole child.’ I wanted to be in a leadership role so that I could help kids not only be strong achievers, but good people. 

“And that means teaching them about citizenship and working together, and taking accountability for their own education.”

Principal DeCesaro takes pride in the fact that at Haaff, every Tiger is unique.

“That’s something I feel we do very well at Haaff: seeing each student as an individual and then tailoring education to each child rather than trying to make them fit in our box,” she explained.

The fact that the Tiger Team is relatively small – 12 classroom teachers and 5 specialists – allows for a tighter connection with the scholars.

“We know all of our kids,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘This is my student for just one year.’ These are our kids every single year. 

“And I think that’s what sets Haaff apart: that you have many teachers who have worked nowhere else but Haaff. Lots of them have had their own children go through Haaff. So they are dedicated and devoted to this community in Belmont, and they want to see all of our students succeed.”

Every year, Principal DeCesaro implements a theme. This year, it’s “Kindness Can Move Mountains.”

“We like to use that as the cornerstone of our entire school year,” she explained. “We all know there have been many different challenges in the world over the past year, but we are fully committed to having the best in-person or online education we can provide.

“It’s all about doing what we can to be kind to each other and make each other feel we all have a place here: staying safe and healthy while working together.”

For both the Tigers and her staff, Principal DeCesaro is respected and endeared as a “Mother Hen,” whose concern for the happiness and well-being of others knows no bounds.

“She is more than just a Principal: she’s a friend…to everyone,” said a member of the office support staff. “At Haaff, we are a family and that’s because of Principal DeCesaro.”

It seems fitting, then, that two students in Principal DeCesario’s first fourth-grade class at Bradford went to become parents of a young girl who is now a third-grade student at Haaff.

“They don’t live in this area but applied through School Choice,” Principal DeCesario explained. “When the little girl was in first grade, the Dad came in and said, ‘Hi Mrs. D! Remember me?’ And I knew exactly who he was. Although they missed the School Choice window, I told him: ‘I’ve known you a long time. I care about you so let’s get your daughter enrolled at Haaff.’

“And they’ve been here ever since, which is pretty cool.”

Haaff also is the “people’s choice,” so to speak, earning the accolade “Best School in Pueblo” in the annual Best of Pueblo event sponsored by The Pueblo Chieftain.

“That made me pretty happy, because this has been a challenging year, and to know that our community trusts us and believes in what we’re doing, and believes this is the best school in Pueblo, is pretty affirming,” Principal DeCesario said.

A former tap dancer, as well as Miss Pueblo and Miss Denver, Principal DeCesario was head cheerleader at Centennial High School and also cheered in college.

"In fact, my first job in the district was as the cheerleading coach at Centennial," she said. "I think those experiences have helped me realize that one of my greatest jobs as the principal at Haaff is to be a cheerleader for my students, staff, and school as a whole. I work hard every day to support, motivate, and encourage my students and staff to be the best they can be and to strive to reach their full potential.

"I tell my school community every day that Haaff is the best school in town because I want them to know how much I believe in them."

And as the head of the Tiger Family, Principal DeCesaro makes sure the little ones under her care know they are special.

“Every morning before school, I greet every one of our students by name,” she said. “I have lots of parents tell me, ‘How can you know everyone’s name?’ It’s because I feel it’s really, really important to know everyone single one of your students as an individual. 

“And that’s something I have worked on as part of our student culture. I know every student’s name, what’s important to them, and I think that goes a long way with those relationships.”