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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The flier for his going away party says a lot about John Kito’s work as an educator.

Across the top of it are photos of people performing traditional dances of Alaska Natives, Pacific and South Pacific Islands, Mexico, Indonesia and Africa. The Anchorage Daily News reports the potluck buffet that night featured dishes representing Albania, Samoa, Laos and other countries.

“A night of cultural celebrations in honor of Principal John Kito,” the flier reads. “Help us celebrate Tyson elementary’s one and only principal. All of Tyson is invited.”

Below the invitation are photos of Kito, who is Tlingit and Japanese. In one he's receiving an award. Kito has been recognized as a Distinguished National Principal, which honors outstanding elementary and middle-level principals who ensure that America’s children acquire a sound foundation for lifelong learning and achievement.

In the next photo, he's a young man with dark hair, a mustache and beard, and wearing a dress shirt, tie, and suspenders. A more recent one shows him a bit heavier, with gray hair, mustache and beard, and wearing a Hawaiian shirt under a down jacket.

Flyer for John Kito's retirement party (Courtesy John Kito)

The school was brand new when he became its first principal. “William Tyson (Elementary School) has been my home for the last 26 years. Looking back, I feel that I was destined to be here,” said Kito. 

The school is named after a Yup’ik elder and chief. Some 90 percent of the students are minorities, including Asian or Asian/Pacific Islander, Black or African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian. 

Some came to the United States as refugees. Others are the children of migrant workers. The school ranks in the top 5 percent of Alaska schools for diversity, and the top 1 percent for children eligible for free lunches.

He said, “it just seemed like this is the place where I needed to be. And when I took the job…I felt like I was destined to be here at this particular school. 

"It's provided me an opportunity to accomplish my vision I've had for a long time. And that's to develop a school, a place where students and staff and the community join together to promote a learning environment of caring and mutual respect. And I think we have actually met that," Kito said.

He’s 80 years old, and retiring. “I'm comfortable in leaving and I think that the staff here understood exactly what we were attempting to do and will carry on.”

Tyson Librarian Danielle Kovarik put together a 43-minute farewell video that includes footage of students performing dances set to popular music, everyday scenes at the school, and dozens of children, some shyly, each saying, “Thank you, Mr. Kito.” Other students sat at their desks and said their goodbyes in unison, ending with cheering.

Teachers and staff thanked him for being a friend, said they’d learned a lot from him and it was a blessing to work with him.

One woman said, “I am very happy to be part of the Tyson family and that I got the chance to work with you. You saw me through some of the most difficult times in my life, from my divorce to both of my parents dying over the last few years, and just kept me busy here at work and just supported me and my family. And so thank you.”

Another commented on him being a great support before, during and after COVID.

Kerri Wood, Athabascan, is a grant technician for migrant education in the Anchorage school district. Now a grandmother, she’s known Kito since her own children were students in an Anchorage school he worked at earlier. 

“I met him first as a principal for my children," Wood told Indian Country Today. "Then I went to work as a temporary school attendant...the first year that William Tyson Elementary School opened. So I worked with him at that school (Tyson) in several different positions."

She called Kito a “great leader.” She said his Tlingit heritage came through in his personal style and approach. He’s soft-spoken, but “very no nonsense,” Wood said. 

“He really takes time to think about how to tackle a situation and listens to other people and their thoughts. So that definitely I think is completely attributed to his heritage.” Also, she said, “he has a great sense of humor.”

“The school that he works at is one of the feeder schools into the high school here in Anchorage that is the most diverse in the nation. And so during my time with him there, we have had many different populations of refugees. And he is very conscious of people and their cultures and respectful of them, himself being of Japanese and Tlingit descent. He's not boisterous about what he's gone through but definitely has high respect for people and their cultures,” Wood said.

Kito said, “I will cherish my time at this school. I realize how fortunate I have been to have had a career I've loved and to have spent that career with memorable students, a caring community, and a wonderful and talented staff."

In closing, he said, “I just want everyone to know that every child can succeed, but in order for them to succeed, we have to acknowledge their individuality.”

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