Stone Creek teacher embraces history, and makes history, during her 41-year career


In the fall of 1971, Richard Nixon was in his first term as president, Disney was getting ready to open a new theme park in Florida, Led Zeppelin was putting the finishing touches on its fourth album, and Karen Reaves was a rookie teacher at the old El Toro Marine School.

The El Toro campus wasn’t in the Irvine Unified School District back then – in fact, our district didn’t actually exist. IUSD was established the following year, along with Saddleback Valley Unified, breaking up the larger San Joaquin School District.

Reaves, recalling the San Joaquin split, said teachers had the option to join either school system. Though her home was in Saddleback Valley, there was a revolutionary momentum in Irvine under founding Superintendent Stan Corey, who was empowering his staff of instructional go-getters.

“It was totally decentralized back then,” Reaves said. “Every school picked their own books. Irvine allowed their teachers so much freedom, as long as you were teaching the curriculum.”

Reaves remained at El Toro for another six years before pitching in to open a new Irvine school called Stone Creek Elementary in 1977, and she’s been there ever since. But after more than four decades in education, she’s decided to retire this year. This week will be her last as a teacher.

“It’s time,” she says, though she hasn’t totally wrapped her mind around what that means.

“For two-thirds of my life I have identified myself as an educator,” Reaves said. “I’m just having a hard time thinking of myself as a retiree.”

Stone Creek Principal Michael Shackelford summed up Reaves’ contributions in two words — “knowledge” and “strength.”

“Her strength of conviction to do what is right for students and to stand up for what she believes to be true will continue to echo in the halls of Stone Creek for years to come,” Shackelford said. “She is one of the cornerstones that Stone Creek was built upon.”

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In all, 71 IUSD workers are set to retire this year, including teachers, administrators and classified staff. While this veteran group collectively represents more than 1,800 years of district service, Reaves has the most years, at 41.

And her connection to schools goes back even further. Born into a family of teachers, Reaves said she’s always wanted to be an educator, playing “school” when she was 4 years old.

The years did nothing to diminish that passion, and Reaves graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and ancient cultures, along with an emergency credential. She later added a master’s degree in reading.

Back then the starting salary for a new teacher was well under $10,000. But a new Volkswagen cost less than $2,000, and you could fill it up with gas at 36 cents a gallon.

“I taught for a couple years before I finally earned $10,000 for a salary, and I was just talking to someone about how excited I was about that,” she said with a smile.

El Toro was Reaves’ first stop, but Stone Creek would prove to be her destination, even if it was still an “instant school” of portable buildings when she arrived. The campus we’re now familiar with, she said, was still under construction.

“I was there for the groundbreaking,” she recalled. “It rained and rained and rained. When they were building it, they weren’t sure it was going to open on time.”

Shackelford said having a staff member who was there when the campus was built has come in handy, particularly during the school’s more recent modernization. Want to know why a structure was built a certain way? Just ask Karen. She was there.

“The depth of knowledge and history that Karen has been the keeper of through the years is on a level that no book or Internet wiki site could ever fully contain,” he said.

Reaves started her career as a third-grade teacher and eventually moved up to fourth-graders, then fifth-graders. She even taught combo classes with fifth- and sixth-grade kids before becoming a permanent sixth-grade teacher. That was about 20 years ago, and she hasn’t looked back.

“What I like about that age is they are so on the edge of being adults, yet they’ve got this innocence of being children,” she said. “My girls are either playing with Barbies or they want to be Barbies.”

And middle school seems to fit her style.

“I’m more about empowering students to take responsibility for their own decision-making,” she said.

Over the years, Reaves said it has not been uncommon to teach generations within the same family, or students whose parents went to school with her son. She’s watched hairstyles and fashions cycle in and out, yet times and technologies have marched ever forward, changing some aspects of instruction and perhaps the expectations of students, who in a world of iPads and Facebook are more inclined to ask for their test results immediately after their final answer bubble is filled.

Kids are kids,” she said, “but what we are seeing is an expectation of instant gratification. Long-term is really hard for them to deal with.”

Reaves said other aspects of the job have changed as well. There was a time, she said, when she would lead sixth-graders in lessons on cooking, sewing, or even quilting.

The standards movement may have pushed those activities aside, but Reaves still finds ways to engage students, tying history lessons to tangible artifacts from her own personal collection, including a wooly mammoth tusk, coins from the days of Alexander the Great and a 3,500-year-old ushabti. (She told is this is an ancient Egyptian figurine that was placed in tombs to stand in for the dead in case the afterlife demanded some manual labor.)

“She really just brings all of the history to life for the kids in the classroom,” Shackelford said, “and they get excited about it because she gets excited about it.”

Which reminds us of the other thing you should know about Karen Reaves. She is deeply passionate about ancient history and the artifacts that have been left behind as clues in the ultimate who-done-it. She is also an avid diver, and she proudly notes that she was among the first women divers certified in California.

“I think I like adventure,” she said. “I like mystery.”

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Of course she’ll have plenty of time for both after the final bell rings on Thursday. Reaves said she’d like to travel to Jordan and Egypt soon, and maybe dive the Red Sea with her husband. She may also write a book and go back to school to study archeology and anthropology.

“I want to have time to look around,” she said, “and I have a whole list of places I want to go diving.”

It’s around this time that we spot her favorite coffee mug. Though the handle was broken some time ago – making it look like another weathered artifact – the motto printed on its side remains intact: “Women who behave rarely make history.”

Reaves has now made history as a teacher with more than 40 years in Irvine, predating the district itself. And she’ll look to make more as she begins a new chapter, even if it is a little tough for her to embrace the term “retiree.”

“I’ve always taken pride in being an educator,” Reaves said. “I always said it with pride, and I always told people I was a teacher in the top district in the United States.”