Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly walks into a surprise assembly to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year at Sterling Elementary School on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly walks into a surprise assembly to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year at Sterling Elementary School on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Making a place where staff and students want to be

Sterling principal recognized in surprise ceremony

Staff and students at Sterling Elementary School sat quietly Monday morning in the school gym waiting to celebrate their unsuspecting principal. Principal Denise Kelly was named this year’s National Distinguished Principal by the Alaska Association of Elementary School Principals and was honored at a surprise assembly attended by students, staff, her family and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District administrators.

Each year, AAESP gives their National Distinguished Principal award to one elementary school principal who, according to their website, is respected by students and colleagues, assumes an active role in their community, shows strong educational leadership by setting high expectations and maintains a purposeful learning environment.

Kelly is the program’s 38th award recipient. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Northern Arizona State University, as well as a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Phoenix. Kelly joined KPBSD in 2011 and has been the principal at Sterling Elementary School for eight years.

Alaska Association of Elementary School Principals representatives said Monday they receive nominations from around the state and that a committee is tasked with reviewing applications and narrowing them down. AAESP Executive Director Jennifer Schmitz and President Jennifer Rinaldi said they look for strong leadership and school community building when reviewing nominations.

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland, who attended Monday’s ceremony, praised Kelly’s efforts to make the school feel like a place where “staff and students want to be” and for the work she’s put in this school year to go above and beyond. He recalled instances where Kelly has been seen shoveling snow outside of the school and stepped in for the school’s special needs teacher.

“Mrs. Kelly never complains about all she has to do, but rather jumps in and models for all of us, doing what it takes to keep the school running and meet the needs of the entire school community,” Holland said.

KPBSD Board of Education member Jennifer Waller, who represents Sterling and said her children attended Sterling Elementary School, said Kelly is always waiting to greet students at the beginning of the school day and has always been welcoming to school community members.

“(Kelly) just carries a professionalism that is super encouraging and makes the atmosphere here just encouraging and promising,” Waller said.

In a letter of recommendation for Kelly’s consideration for the award, KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent wrote that Kelly’s experience within the school district and her role in the Sterling community make her deserving of the award. Dendurent highlighted Kelly’s creation of a recycling drop-off program at the elementary school, her involvement with the Sterling Community Center, her support for the Sterling Senior Center, her work with Sterling’s Masonic Lodge and her commitment to Social Emotional Learning for students.

“The National Distinguished Principal Award recognizes principals for their outstanding contributions to the community and the education profession,” Dendurent wrote of Kelly. “Denise epitomizes this in so many of her daily activities as well as through the recognition of various awards she has received in the past.”

Kelly said after Monday’s assembly that winning the award was “humbling” and that she’s grateful that the work being done at Sterling Elementary School was recognized. Even after she entered the gymnasium Monday, Kelly said she didn’t know she’d won the award.

“​​I still didn’t even know why everybody was here until Clayton started talking,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that she and other administrators at Sterling Elementary School work every day to try and build a strong sense of community, such as through class meetings and schoolwide assemblies. She also said that office doors are kept open to make people feel welcome.

“That’s a huge deal for us is to make sure that everybody knows that (Sterling Elementary School) is a place where we welcome everybody,” Kelly said.

She added that her favorite part of being Sterling Elementary’s principal is building relationships with students, their parents and staff. To the Sterling Elementary School community, Kelly said she wants to say that she will always be “Sterling Strong.”

Video footage of Monday’s surprise assembly can be found on the school district’s Facebook page.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland, right, speaks at an assembly at Sterling Elementary School honoring Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly, who was named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland, right, speaks at an assembly at Sterling Elementary School honoring Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly, who was named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland, right, speaks at an assembly at Sterling Elementary School honoring Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly, who was named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland, right, speaks at an assembly at Sterling Elementary School honoring Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly, who was named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

From left: Jennifer Schmitz, Denise Kelly, Jennifer Rinaldi and Clayton Holland attend a surprise assembly at Sterling Elementary School held to celebrate Kelly being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year, on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

From left: Jennifer Schmitz, Denise Kelly, Jennifer Rinaldi and Clayton Holland attend a surprise assembly at Sterling Elementary School held to celebrate Kelly being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year, on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly speaks at a surprise assembly at Sterling Elementary School held to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly speaks at a surprise assembly at Sterling Elementary School held to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly holds flowers at Sterling Elementary School after a surprise assembly to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year, on Monday, May 2, 2022 in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly holds flowers at Sterling Elementary School after a surprise assembly to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year, on Monday, May 2, 2022 in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly speaks at a surprise assembly held at the school to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. On the right, Kelly’s daughter, Freya, attends. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sterling Elementary School Principal Denise Kelly speaks at a surprise assembly held at the school to celebrate her being named Alaska Elementary Principal of the Year on Monday, May 2, 2022, in Sterling, Alaska. On the right, Kelly’s daughter, Freya, attends. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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