By Susan McCabe
For Vashon Island School District
When Paul Colwell moved to Vashon Island at what some people would call retirement age, he was pondering what to do next as he departed from his lifelong work with the international music leadership development group, Up With People.
So, while he looked around, he took a part-time job with Vashon Island School District (VISD) as a para-educator.
Almost 20 years later, this month, Colwell will retire — at the age of 86 — from that full-time career at Vashon High School (VHS) — a vocation that he said, as it turned out, to be exactly “what I was meant to be doing next.” His students and his colleagues agree.
VHS Principal Danny Rock echoed them all.
“Paul ends his extraordinary professional career in the service of students with disabilities at VHS. Books are written about Paul’s contributions to breaking down barriers, connecting people to one another, and filling the world with music, compassion, honesty, and equity,” Rock said. “Of course, don’t forget his wicked jump shot. Paul’s presence at VHS athletic events, student performances, and more speak to his unending advocacy for the young people of our Island. We have been lucky to have his deep experience here and wish him the best on his next adventures!”
Advocating for youth is something Colwell has done from the time of his own youth. He and two of his brothers were recording what he calls “bluegrass-ish” music with Columbia Records by the time they were teens. That turned into Up With People in 1965. Colwell and his brothers skipped college to travel internationally with the group they founded, and he stayed with the organization, shepherding it from a traveling show into what is now an international youth organization that focuses on intercultural communication.
Colwell brought those decades of experience with youth to his work as a para-educator with special needs students at VHS. For the first ten years, Colwell worked with special needs students primarily in the classroom. The last 11 years of his tenure were spent working in the Learning Resource Center helping kids with academic programs.
Despite his musical background, Colwell hasn’t taught music at VHS. He has, however, helped with open mic performances and he’s worked with some of the high school’s musically talented students to encourage their development.
Colwell, who doesn’t have an education degree, has approached his VHS career much as he approaches the rest of his life.
“… Curriculum is one thing, but the important thing is how you treat people; how you work as a team, how you get along with people,” he said. “That’s what I aspired to do all these years.”
And it has been rewarding. He described his greatest joys at VHS as getting to know the students and watching them grow up from the nervous, insecure freshmen through the years as they become adults.
“I find them to be caring, thoughtful, articulate, smart people who are interested in the world,” he said.
Part of the reward he claims is seeing those kids return after high school to catch up on what they are doing.
He marvels at the generational changes he’s observed through the years.
He noted that kids are much more attached to their devices than when he started, and he believes their attention spans have shortened. But he’s smart enough to know that time marches on.
“You can’t turn back the clock; you just have to learn this is where we are and figure out how to work with this reality,” he said.
Colwell credited the quality of teaching at VHS with helping students grow and thrive before the pandemic, during the pandemic and as they returned in person.
“I’ve enjoyed being in the classroom and in online breakout rooms with the students,” he said. “I get to experience VHS’ master teachers at work, and I hope the kids are enjoying learning from them as much as I do.”
It’s that quality of teaching, the camaraderie and creativity that comes with a small school, that Colwell cites as valuable assets in a Vashon Island education. Still, he sees room for improvement.
“I would like to see more opportunities for vocational curricula — automotive, metalworking, welding, information systems, the skills kids might need if they don’t want to or can’t afford to go to college,” he said.
After all the years of working in more than 50 countries, he said that there has been nothing more rewarding than working in the Vashon school district.
“I never expected anything like this, but it’s worked out beautifully,” he said.
He added that he has been deeply moved by the thoughtfulness, respect and kindness the students have shown him.
“They’ve had my back,” he said. “I tell them to take that to the world and they will make their mark.”
Paul Colwell will also continue to make his mark on Vashon. Watch for his virtuoso mandolin playing in various island bands. He is, after all, a musician first.
In honor of Paul Colwell’s contributions to music on Vashon and around the world, a new scholarship in his name has been established to be awarded through the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation. This scholarship will go to students who wish to pursue learning and training in music. To donate to the fund, visit vashonscholarshipfoundation.org, and click on the donate button. In the comment or memo box, be sure to include the words “for the Paul Colwell Music Scholarship.”