Karen Duell stands quietly in the main entrance of South High School as a swarm of middle school students enter the building. The students are about to tour the school to see if South is the right fit for them.
It’s a program Duell started at South shortly after her arrival at the school in 2011. She had followed Principal Kristin Waters to South after the two had worked at Morey Middle School in Capitol Hill, where Duell had spent about 14 years. At the time, South was not a popular choice for parents living in the neighborhood.
As the community and family liaison at South, Duell set out to change that.
“South was a great school, but it just didn’t have any traction in the neighborhood,” said Carolyn Howard, a former South parent and former president of the Parent Teacher Association. “Kristin and Karen worked really hard to basically bring out South’s strengths.”
The community liaison wears a lot of different hats. After starting as a nurse’s assistant at Morey, Duell became one of the first to hold the new position across Denver Public Schools. The liaison does marketing for an individual school and also works in the community to create partnerships with local businesses.
While sometimes those partnerships mean monetary donations, they can also mean valuable programming and learning opportunities for students in the school. At South, which sits at 1700 E. Louisianna Ave., Duell worked with nonprofits like A Little Help, where students can volunteer and help local older folks with different projects. She also created partnerships with the South Pearl Street Association, Denver Parks and Recreation, and more, which often lead to student internships, job shadowing and employment.
“I’m really big on community involvement,” she said. “It’s a two-way partnership, it’s not just give, give, give to us.”
But working with the students at South is Duell’s favorite part of the job and what she misses the most. Duell retired last month at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.
For Duell, one of the strongest draws to South is the school’s diversity. Within the student body, 42 languages are spoken. Part of the job of the community and family liaison is to make sure students and families are comfortable within the school.
Often that meant driving across Denver to meet with families in their homes, Duell said. Learning how to listen was key.
“If someone is mad about something, you have to learn to hear them,” Duell said. “They have the right to be heard.”
Howard, who will be taking over as the new community liaison at South this July, said Duell’s patience and ability to work with those around her was a big part of what brought Howard’s family to the school in the first place.
Howard’s oldest child started at South in 2012. A year later, Howard became president of the Parent Teacher Association. She worked with Duell to create a new mission for the association, one that focused on helping students and teachers thrive. In the six years that Howard was president of the Parent Teacher Association, she said that Duell only missed a handful of meetings.
“She was great about really embracing parents and also about being really available,” Howard said. “I don’t think we could have made near the dent in what we wanted to do without her.”
Although Howard said she knows she has big shoes to fill, she’s hoping to expand on and strengthen many of the community programs that Duell started. Schools, she said, can only provide so much. Going to the community can help bring in a “wealth of knowledge” to round out the student experience at South.
Working with Duell and the staff at South made Howard decide to change careers and embrace her new role at the school. But the students played a role as well.
“My involvement in the PTA, it really just reinforced my love of kids, especially this age group and this school,” she said. “I have learned so much from these kids whether they’ve come across town, or across the world.”
As for Duell, she’s ready for the next step in her life. After receiving a business degree in college, she said she felt grateful to land in a career helping students in a school she called home.
But now is the right time to move on. Her husband is taking a three-month sabbatical from work and the couple plans to spend the next few months in Duell’s home state of Florida. Retirement also means Duell can spend more time with her 14 grandchildren.
“Leaving South I have no regrets. It’s all been extremely positive,” Duell said. “I know it’s the right decision, I’m excited about retirement, but I definitely leave with a bit of sadness and emotions.”
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