Educator marks 30 years of helping struggling kids

After spending 30 years helping educate underachieving, homeless and incarcerated children, Donald Felder is retiring as principal of Seattle's Interagency Academy.

But he still has a lot of work to do.

Felder plans to travel to schools in Canada, Australia and South Africa to look at the relationship of poverty and education. He hopes to return to Interagency in another capacity in the future.

Felder says that in the U.S., poverty is often used to explain lack of achievement, while in some countries it is more likely to encourage people to seek education.

"Poverty isn't an issue in the poorest of countries when it comes to education, but it's an excuse here (in the U.S.)," Felder said. "Why do people in poverty in these countries promote education to escape it? That's a dichotomy worth exploring."

Felder celebrated his retirement yesterday from the school he helped expand over the years. Interagency is an alternative-school program in the Seattle School District for students in the sixth through 12th grades who have not been successful in traditional schools.

Felder was joined at the celebration at a downtown hotel by his family, colleagues and former students.

"Sometimes it's hard to imagine because time has gone by so fast," he said. "In some ways, I feel like I just got started."

Felder joined Interagency in 1973 by chance.

"Someone walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to work here," he said. "I said 'yes' purely out of curiosity, and it's been the best thing that's ever happened to me in education."

When he first was hired as a teacher, Interagency was nothing more than a two-story school with an enrollment of 40 students. Some had behavioral problems or were in jail, on parole or on probation. They were labeled as "unteachable" and "bad."

"We never believe we've had one 'bad' child in 30 years," Felder said.

The program has since grown to 22 school sites serving more than 650 students from all over the city. Besides teaching at the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, Juvenile Division, in Central Seattle, Felder has implemented a site for homeless teens in the University District, a school-to-work program, and a curriculum to move students back into traditional schools.

Felder became principal in 1995. During his tenure at Interagency, he spent his summers going to seminars and taking classes at the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati and received his doctorate in education in 1999.

Felder understands why some students struggle in traditional schools. It wasn't until his junior year at the University of Washington that he felt he belonged at the school. He credits a professor for being a major influence on how he viewed himself when he was doing poorly in his classes.

"He told me, 'You can and you must do better to be able to thrive,' " Felder recalled. "I had to believe I can learn or I would have to drop out. So I put forth the effort."

That advice has fueled his desire to help children who are struggling, even as he leaves the school.

"If I stopped believing in these children, I would be lying on the beach and golfing 90 percent of the day," he said. "There's work to be done. It may be in a different way, but with the same impact."

As he reflects on the past 30 years, it takes a few minutes for Felder to think about the most memorable moment in his career. One of the highlights, he said, was taking 17 students who were on parole on a cross-country trip in a van and station wagon in the late 1970s.

While driving through Nebraska, one of the students began smoking marijuana as a State Patrol trooper pulled the van over for having expired license tags.

"I pulled out all the luggage on this dirt road and checked all of it to make sure there were no more drugs on the trip. I was furious," he said, laughing. "After that, it turned out to be the best trip."

He also talked about a more recent event, when Interagency seniors, teachers and counselors gathered at a lunch at the end of the school year to tell Felder how much he meant to them.

"At that moment, it brought closure to my eyes," he said. "I was really touched."

Former student Evelyn Shelby attended yesterday's retirement party to thank the man who always supported her.

"I appreciate all he's done for me — not just as a teacher but how he really enriched my life," said Shelby, who also worked at Interagency with Felder for five years as a secretary. "He's found a gift within himself that he shares willingly, and I've benefited from that as a child, student and as an adult."

Next year, South Lake High School Principal Barbara Moore will run the Interagency program.

Not being at the helm is a little difficult for Felder to accept.

"I am confident she will continue to do good work, but I think it is sad to pass the baton to someone else," he said with a sigh. "It's my baby."

Nguyen Huy Vu: 206-464-2376 or