A job well done: Kealakehe Elementary School principal retiring after 43-year teaching career

  • Kealakehe Elementary School principal Nancy Matsukawa receives a congratulatory hug Wednesday at her retirement party. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Above: Kealakehe Elementary School staff take photos with principal Nancy Matsukawa Wednesday at her retirement party. Inset: Matsukawa gets a congratulatory hug. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Kealakehe Elementary School staff have fun at a photo booth Wednesday for principal Nancy Matsukawa’s retirement party. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Teachers gather to take photos with Kealakehe Elementary School principal Nancy Matsukawa Wednesday at her retirement party. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Staff members look at a quilt made for Kealakehe Elementary School principal Nancy Matsukawa Wednesday at her retirement party. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Kealakehe Elementary School principal Nancy Matsukawa is retiring after 43 years with the state Department of Education.

Past and present staff members on Wednesday surprised her with a farewell party where wishes of good luck and stories were shared.

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Matsukawa started her career in 1976 when Kealakehe Intermediate School. She’s been at the helm of the adjacent elementary school for the past 20 years.

“I love seeing the kids, both in and out of the classroom,” Matsukawa said of her tenure, noting her favorite programs at the school were the annual Songfest and fifth-grade advancement ceremony.

Joycelend “Nani” Damasco, community engagement specialist, worked under Matsukawa for years and Wednesday shared an ‘Olelo No’eau.

“I ali’i no ke ali’i i ke kanaka. ‘A chief is a chief because of the people who serve him (her).’ The mana’o behind this ‘olelo is to remind the chief to always consider the his/her people,” she said. “During my years with Nancy, I have always found her to be an alaka’i (leader) who built trust, fostered relationships and genuinely cared by her staff and faculty. If it wasn’t for her nurturing and guiding nature I would not be where I am today — and for that I am forever grateful. She provided me with the room and platform to grow in my education as well as my career.”

Kari Swangel has taught at Kealakehe Elementary School for the past three years of her 25-year teaching career. Matsukawa, she said, has been the steadfast leader of the enormous school in Kailua-Kona.

“Nancy Matsukawa has given her heart and soul to the staff and students at Kealakehe Elementary school,” Swangel said. “She is in school early in the morning and stays late into the night. I’ve even seen her car here on the weekends! Her dedication to the Kealakehe community is unmatched and she will be dearly missed. I have known Nancy since she was my Sunday School teacher when I was a kid!”

Susan Tanaka, who now teaches sixth-grade math, was a pupil of Matsukawa when she was a third-grader at the school.

“I was fortunate enough to be hired by her to teach at Kealakehe Elementary when I moved back home,” Tanaka said. “Although I can’t imagine this school without her, I am happy she can enjoy her retirement and not have to think about another school academic and financial plan! Maybe she will come into my classroom and teach a math lesson.”

Mikell Groff-Kauhaihao has worked with Matsukawa since before the long-time educator took the helm at Kealakehe Elementary School.

“I have seen not only education in general make evolutionary changes, but also the community, students, staff, the school and myself. Who was the constant? Mrs. Nancy Matsukawa,” she said. “I have witnessed some of the greatest challenges to face education in today’s world be humbly, and gently handled with such grace by principal Matsukawa.”

Groff-Kauhaihao said what makes Matsukawa so exceptional in how she leads is how she sincerely supports the members of her team.

“Nancy has a way of leading and supporting us even when it means we might be leaving her school. She is selfless in this way,” she said. “Over the years, I have seen principal Matsukawa give her blessing and honest support to some of her strongest teachers so they could pursue higher education, move in a different direction, take sabbaticals or make changes for professional or personal growth.

Groff-Kauhaihao continued, “She has always been a tireless cheerleader for her staff showing compassion, empathy and professionalism even when it means her school will be losing a great member of the team. Support like this is incredibly selfless and invaluable to building strong trusting relationships. Through her leadership I have seen how our school truly is the heart of our community and she is the life-blood that runs our school. I can’t imagine working for any other administrator, but it is so priceless to have been blessed over the years to learn from her and grow as an educator under her leadership.”

Kealakehe Elementary School Parent Community Network coordinator Pohai Kirkland said it is because of Matsukawa, she was able to be the best PCNC that she could be the past eight years.

“She is the reason for my staying at Kealakehe Elementary,” she said. “I have learned so much from her leadership.”

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Matsukawa said she is going to spend her retirement “doing nothing right now.”

“In the future, I would like to travel,” she mused.

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