Kari Dahlquist Leaves Behind a Legacy at Creek Valley Elementary

by | May 2024

Kari Dahlquist

Kari Dahlquist. Photos: Chris Emeott

Beloved elementary school principal retires.

Kari Dahlquist’s journey into the realm of education began when she was a little girl.

“When I visited my grandma in this small town, there was this little red schoolhouse right across the street. It was always unlocked, so I’d go and play in the little red school house from a century plus ago,” Dahlquist says. “It became an aha moment for me.”

Dahlquist’s life is a series of aha moments that have contributed to her success as an educator. She is retiring after a career that’s spanned almost 40 years, 24 of which were at the helm of Creek Valley Elementary.

Dahlquist’s last day is June 30.

Switching Gears

That schoolhouse was always in the back of her mind. As a high school student at Edina West, any opportunity to teach was a welcome one. She worked with students with disabilities and was a camp counselor. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone when she went to St. Olaf College in Northfield for a degree in secondary education. But after that, she was drawn to elementary school. After all, her mother was the media specialist at Countryside Elementary.

“I went to the [University of Minnesota] and picked up my elementary education degree,” she says of her master’s and eventually a Ph.D. in education. “I just loved the creativity and the breadth of knowledge as opposed to focusing on one subject area.”

Dahlquist started as a paraprofessional at Concord Elementary in 1985 and became a classroom teacher the following year. She taught there for 15 years and embarked on her tenure as principal of Creek Valley Elementary in 2000. “I was interested and curious to see how the big system worked,” she says. “When you’re a classroom teacher, your classroom is your world. When you are a principal, your building is your world.”

Preparing Children for the World

Dahlquist cares about her students and is dedicated to producing the next generation of leaders. Navigating school and life is part of her mission. Under her tenure, and with the help of assistant superintendent Randy Smasal, Dahlquist established Creek Valley as a Leader in Me school. The program is based on Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s ingrained into the very fabric of Creek Valley, which took the habits and transformed them into principles to encourage kids to be happy and foster leadership skills. Dahlquist incorporates these into school life in various ways. “I just read to a kindergarten class this morning,” she says. “I’ll go read a story a month. Each story is about a habit. They’re great things to help you be organized and successful.”

Steven Covey’s seven habits are displayed in the main hallway of the school.

Steven Covey’s seven habits are displayed in the main hallway of the school.

The seven habits sit on a bulletin board in the main hallway of the school. To reinforce them, the school has monthly Pride Days where students wear matching T-shirts with Creek Valley’s motto: Go Out and Make a Difference (GO MAD). They emphasize the importance of empowering students to make positive changes in their lives and the community.

GO MAD and the seven habits are the pillars that then breed understanding and mutual respect. Dahlquist’s gift in life is to help others feel seen. She emphasizes inclusion and kindness.

“Education is the path to world peace,” she says. “If we would just listen to each other. We don’t have to agree with each other. We don’t have to like each other. But if we respect each other, the world would be a whole lot better. I’ll talk about that with the kids. At recess, go out and smile at someone, or ask them to play or include them. You don’t have to be their best friend. You don’t have to spend every day with them, but occasionally that will make a big difference. I remember people from high school or college that were kind. Instead of saying, ‘I’m saving this seat for somebody at lunch,’ say, ‘Please do, please join us.’ Those little things, and they are little things, but if everyone did those little things, we’d have a better world. It sounds contrite, but I think it’s true.”

With those lessons in mind, Dahlquist is confident the future will be bright with Creek Valley students leading the way.

“Edina is a community in which many graduates return,” she says. One of those is Carah Hart, Creek Valley’s music teacher. She was once a student at the school, now is a staff member and her children also attend the school.

“They’re in the school that I went to,” Hart says. “They are under her leadership. We are singing the same Bobcat Song that we sang when I was here. I’m grateful that they’ve been able to experience her leadership and the joy and energy that she brings to the school. It’s so unique, and I am so grateful that they’ve been able to witness that.”

She is also impressed by Dahlquist’s leadership skills. Many of the teachers who were on staff while Hart was a student are still working there today.

“She is a truly remarkable leader. She is very approachable and authentic,” Hart says. “She is so conscientious, validating and affirming. She will regularly leave us voicemails or notes saying, ‘You’re doing a great job’ … She’s very intentional about making sure that people feel affirmed and appreciated.”

Dahlquist is also intentional about letting families know to affirm and appreciate their children. On kindergarten information night, she always shares this little piece of advice: “Don’t compare your child to other children because everyone’s unique and different. Celebrate your child’s strengths,” she says. “Everyone has, for lack of a better word, their issues. Everyone is struggling with something. You might want to look at a family, and you might say, ‘Oh, they look perfect,’ but everyone has their thing. Be kind to each other. Support each other.”

Seek First to Understand

Dahlquist’s office walls are covered with photos of children from around the world. “I love to travel. It breaks down barriers,” she says. “I try to take advantage of those international educational travel experiences.” While in college, she was a student teacher in India. She is constantly learning, and while she was working as a teacher, she was awarded the prestigious Fulbright-Hays grant that allowed her to explore teaching in Guatemala and Mexico. Other international trips were to Australia and Istanbul, Turkey.

“One of my favorite things about my career was in 2004. We hosted students from Beijing Primary School. They lived with Creek Valley families for a couple of days, and then some of our Creek Valley families went to visit them in China,” she says.

“I am so very fortunate to have chosen a career in education,” she says. “It has allowed me to work with children my entire life and build strong relationships with … students, staff and families. Lucky me!”

Hart says we are the lucky ones. “She is wonderful. She will be deeply missed,” she says. “It’s big shoes to fill.


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