MISSION - It was a tough gig.

Annie Tester's experience as Nixyaawii Community School's first principal proved intense and chaotic, interspersed with moments of joy and pride. As Tester gets ready to leave Nixyaawii and start teaching in her home town of Pilot Rock, she took some time this week to reflect on the past three years of highs and lows.

High points included the school's first graduation ceremony and Nixyaawii's selection in 2006 as the state's Charter School of the Year. Low moments included a student dying in a tragic auto accident this winter and recent struggles to curb escalating behavioral problems.

Tester was hired about a month before Nixyaawii opened its doors in the fall of 2004. In her office, she found no blueprint or instruction manual on how to run a brand-new American Indian charter school.

It was a steep learning curve, she said, as she stepped into a trio of responsibilities - superintendent, principal and athletic director.

"It was a feeling of being overwhelmed," she said, "a feeling that something needed to be done and not knowing what it was."

The athletic director duties proved most daunting at first.

"The OSAA (Oregon School Activities Association) rule book stayed open on my table almost all the time that first year," Tester said.

Together, she and her staff crafted curriculum and other elements of Nixyaawii's program. Brian Purnell, a teacher at Nixyaawii, remembers a flurry of teachers' meetings.

"We didn't have a handbook," said Purnell. "We didn't have anything."

Tester's biggest reward came at the end of the first year.

"Absolutely the best memory was that first graduation - it was beautiful," Tester said. "I could feel the walls of the gymnasium expanding with the pride - it was truly amazing to me."

The 24-hour-a-day nature of the job, however, consumed Tester and took its toll on her sleep. She spent many restless nights struggling with school matters. Though her decision to retire was not easy, she's ready to pass the baton to someone else.

"I don't feel like I'm the best person to carry on - I'm tired," she said. "I know I have to let go."

Tester's staff is a tight-knit group that even has its own secret handshake. She is proud of their use of a cutting-edge method called "project-based curriculum," which sounds dry and boring, but really is quite the opposite. It's simply a way to combine the three Rs and other skills in the same project.

The school's Elder Portrait Project is an example of the method. Each student selected a tribal elder and interviewed the person. Along the way, the students took photographs, wrote stories and made posters, incorporating language and history. The knowledge goes down like a sugar pill.

"You sneak it in to them," Tester said. "You teach it in such a way they don't even know they're being taught."

She will miss watching students as they figure out how to be successful.

"One of her strong suits is she believes in people," Purnell said. "With students, she believes in redemption."

"Be they in trouble or be they not, you can find a nugget of something that will make them successful if you dig deep enough," Tester said.

She also will miss daily immersion into the American Indian culture. Though she didn't know much about it when she started, the traditions quickly grew on Tester.

"I found a very deep spiritual part of myself because of it," she said.

Her lack of American Indian background also made her the butt of a few fun-loving jokes. The tribe's language instructor, Fred Hill, someone Tester has know since first grade, was one reason for that.

"He has teased me the whole way along," Tester said, laughing. "But whenever I had a question, I went to Fred."

Though Hill amused himself by teaching her some non-existent Indian words, he also pointed out blunders that could cause her embarrassment.

Tester recalled one day when Hill played a joke on her, much to his students' amusement.

"Fred was teaching the students how to set up teepees correctly," she said. "At one point, he said, 'Here Annie - take this teepee pole and when we need it, we'll ask for it.' "

Tester stood, holding the heavy pole for a long time - until she noticed the teepee looked complete. Hill and the students burst out laughing at the comical look on her face.

"My pole wasn't going anywhere, they just wanted me to be out of the way," she said, laughing. "I had no clue."

Purnell said he will miss Tester's flexibility and innovation.

"She's always been willing to try a different approach to make things work," he said.

Tester is helping hire the new principal, then will head to Pilot Rock to teach a specialty reading class and performing arts at the town's high school. She said Nixyaawii was an incredibly interesting stop along life's journey, but she's ready to move on.

"It's just another stepping stone in my adventure," Tester said.

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