Dawn Ripple calls her decision to retire from the Abilene ISD “bittersweet.” One that came to her with much thought and deliberation after four years as the principal at Ward Elementary School. In the end, recognizing that it was time to do something different led her to step away from the daily grind of running a campus.

“I love what I do, and I love my Ward family,” she said just days before the end of the 2022-23 school year. “I’ve been in this building for 10 years, and I’ve established a lot of great connections and relationships, and hopefully, I’ve made an impact in the lives of others.”

Ripple has been an educator across 16 years and four states as she and her family moved with her husband, Kevin, who was a B-1 pilot in the Air Force before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. The Ripple family was stationed in bases in Florida, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and three times at Dyess Air Force Base.

Those three separate stops in Abilene – including the last one – were where Ripple and her family put down roots. All three of their children attended Ward and graduated from Cooper High School, and she served on the PTO and as a substitute teacher before joining the AISD full-time. Before teaching special education at Ward, she taught at Bassetti Elementary School for 1 ½ years. She then became the Instructional Coordinator under former principal Alison Sims and was hired as the principal in the spring of 2019 when Sims moved into an AISD administrative role.

The culture at Ward had already been established before Ripple took over, but she only enhanced what goes on inside the building in southwest Abilene.

“When I interview candidates, I joke with them that at Ward, we work and play hard,” she said. “We bring our ‘A’ game during the day, and we’re all about instruction and developing those relationships with students and making learning fun. But at the end of the day, after the students are gone, we’re popping in and checking on one another. I address all my emails and letters to them as ‘Ward Family’ because I believe that’s what we have here.”

Ward music teacher Elizabeth Burns, who has been in the AISD for 21 years, with 20 of those coming at Ward, taught each of Ripple’s children and considers her a leader and friend.

“I’m going to miss her support and friendship,” Burns said. “She has an amazing way of making people feel valued. Her office has always been open when I needed guidance or uplifting words of encouragement. Ward has always had a family feel but now more than ever. Dawn has given it an extra touch of love. She has such an honest and compassionate heart. There is no doubt that she truly cares about the staff and students at Ward.  

“Her genuine and caring heart has been contagious to our entire staff,” Burns said. “She has encouraged us to be supportive of each other, rally around each other, and work together as an entire team instead of grade levels or individuals. Her guidance has helped take that family feel to another level – not just a  family feel but a loving, supportive family. She will be greatly missed by all of us at Ward.”

It’s that culture that Ripple said she will miss the most after she retires.

“I’m struggling with missing the friendships and community,” she said. “I know I need to slow my pace, but I’m struggling with the knowledge that my day-to-day interactions with people will be curtailed. I’ve been told that people who love hard grieve hard, so I think I’m going through the grieving process. I’ll reset for a little bit and learn to sleep again. But after that, maybe I’ll be a substitute again and come in and teach someone else’s lesson plan and go home at 3:30 p.m. and really go home. I don’t know what I’ll do, but my husband has told me to take my time figuring out that part of this situation.”

One thing she will do is take a well-deserved trip with her husband and their best friends to Europe in late June. They’ll spend a few days in Amsterdam and then eight days on a Viking Cruise ship going through four countries.

And after she gets back, she said she’s already planned another trip in late July when the AISD is hosting its annual Administrative Retreat, prepping for the upcoming 2023-24 school year.

“I think if I’m not in town when everyone else is spinning up and getting ready, maybe I won’t be thinking about and missing it as much,” she said.

Until those two trips, she’ll finish the school year and then serve the rest of her contract helping new principal Blake Fuller settle in. She’ll have to finish cleaning out her office – something she admits she’s dreading and probably won’t until the last minute – and will find a quiet corner in the library to work for the final weeks of her contract.

And then she’ll be done, leaving a lasting mark on the campus and community.

“I want the students to remember that I cared about them as the whole person,” she said. “Education and academics are important, but I want them to know and remember that Mrs. Ripple cared about them as an individual. I want them to know that when they were here, they were cared for, valued, and safe, and to be able to look back and say how much they loved their Ward Elementary School experience.”