CALDWELL — Julie Yamamoto’s first students were her two younger sisters.
The tiny teacher insisted her students finish their lessons before they could play on the family’s Caldwell farm.
“That didn’t last long once they started school,” Yamamoto said.
Her pupils quickly eschewed Yamamoto’s classroom after a full day of public school.
It was a minor setback.
Yamamoto went on to become a teacher, curriculum coordinator, elementary principal and assistant principal at Vallivue High School.
“I was one of those lucky people who always knew what I wanted to do,” Yamamoto said.
Today the Caldwell native is preparing for a new role as the first principal for Ridgevue High School, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.
Yamamoto’s follow-through separated her from the other candidates Superintendent Pat Charlton interviewed for the Ridgevue position.
“If you put Julie in charge of something, it definitely gets done,” Charlton said.
In 2007, the year Yamamoto started as assistant principal at Vallivue, the school was struggling academically.
Test scores were low, drop-out rates were high and the school offered one Advanced Placement class in biology that had about six students, Charlton said.
By 2013, more than 400 students participated in 14 AP classes — earning the school a place on the Washington Post’s list of most challenging high schools in the nation.
Yamamoto is proud of her academic success, but she’s quick to mention her equal ardor for athletics and other extracurricular activities.
“I liked school, but the things that made it really fun and memorable were band and gymnastics,” Yamamoto said.
She also credits volleyball with bringing her and her husband together.
“Literally,” Yamamoto said. “We both went for a ball and collided.”
They’ve been married for 23 years. The couple has six cats, two dogs but no children.
Her older sister, Lianne Yamamoto, doesn’t think that hampers her talents as a teacher or administrator.
“She seems to find humor in a lot of the things kids do,” Yamamoto’s sister said.
When Yamamoto taught first grade at West Canyon Elementary, a teary-eyed student came to her at the end of the year and said, “Too bad you aren’t smart enough to go to second grade, too.”
Her students also keep her “tuned in to what is important to them” by sharing stories during tea time.
Yamamoto has a round table covered in a seasonal cloth where she and her students drink tea from china cups.
“These tea times are usually quite funny as they tell stories on each other,” Yamamoto said. “I suspect their parents would be surprised, perhaps mortified, by some of their antics. The good news is that they survive these outings and have great stories to laugh about with each other.”
She also immerses herself in her school’s curriculum.
Yamamoto takes the training classes with teachers and reads the books assigned to students.
“I tell parents, ‘We want you to read it, too,’” Yamamoto said. “Our job is to look openly at the world and ask students to figure out where they fit.”
The hardest part about Yamamoto’s new position at Ridgevue will be finding her replacement.
“She embodies the true meaning of what you want an educator to be: caring, compassionate and motivated,” Vallivue Principal Richard Brulotte said. “I don’t have enough words to speak as highly of her as I would like to.”
He’s grown to appreciate Yamamoto for the little things, like buying meals for cash-strapped students, and the big things like flying to Spokane just to ride a bus back with students when the band director needed to stay another day.
“That’s just the type of person she is,” Brulotte said. “She is going to do what’s best for kids regardless of what it means to her.”
He’s also watched her extend that courtesy to colleagues by taking the time to sit, talk and cry with them about personal and professional issues.
“She has just always been like that,” Lianne Yamamoto said.
When the Yamamoto children were growing up, the family caught a little pig at a Vallivue jamboree and put it in the bathroom for safe keeping.
The next morning, however, the pig escaped and ran across the highway.
“Julie went streaking out after that poor pig in her nightgown,” Lianne Yamamoto said. “The wind was blowing really hard. I think she lost her shoes ... I just have this image of her running through the mud in her flannel nightgown trying to capture that poor little pig so it didn’t get hurt.”
And when Lianne Yamamoto wanted to buy a Beatles album at Pennywise in Caldwell, her sister was there to help.
“Of course I had no money, but Julie was the saver,” Lianne Yamamoto said. “She gave me the $3.”
The only warning anyone could offer about the educator came from Brulotte, who said, “Don’t pull a prank on her unless you expect one in return.”
Yamamoto is going to need that sense of humor in the coming year. She will continue to serve as Vallivue’s assistant principal while serving as the planning principal for Ridgevue.
“It’s an easy thing to say, but she’s going to be very inundated with working on getting that new building ready to go,” Brulotte said.
She’s not worried, though.
“What’s most important is that we do the right things for the right reasons,” Yamamoto said.
Everything else is details.