‘Legend Principal’: Julie Parker retires after 26 years at Cardiff School

Julie Parker, the principal of Cardiff School for 26 years, is stepping down.
(Karen Billing)

Julie Parker is retiring after an incredible 26 years as the Cardiff School principal.

On June 9, Parker arrived to school to find a campus covered with handmade decorations from the students. The common theme was: “We love you”, “We will miss you.” Parker stopped to read one poster that described her as rad, optimistic, awesome, inspiring, loving, fun, kind, caring, cool and epic. One neon sign named her as “legend principal,” another depicted her playing wall ball, her absolute favorite.

Among the children’s posters was the occasional pool noodle, taped lovingly to the wall.

Parker was puzzled by them at first and asked a student why the pool noodles? The student responded: “They’re fun like you.”

“I feel so good about all that I’ve done here. I feel lucky to have been able to spend 26 years at one school in one great place and feel like I made a difference,” Parker said. “That is unique in an educational environment to be able to have that privilege of staying in one school.

“I’ve just been lucky.”

Parker has racked up a total of 34 years in education, launching her career in the South Bay Union School District in Imperial Beach where she taught sixth grade and was principal for three years. In transitioning over to Cardiff, a kindergarten through second grade campus, she was initially worried if she would be able to connect with the younger set.

“It didn’t take much to bond with the little ones,” Parker said. “They’re pure joy and innocence and enthusiasm for life: the whole world is open to them.”

“And they have no hesitation sharing anything at any given time,” she added of her experiences with kids.

Both of her parents were in education— her mom was a teacher and her father was a principal and superintendent— but Parker didn’t initially go into the family business. She graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1985 with a degree in engineering but after less than a year in the workforce in San Diego she realized her true passion was in schools and her heart in education. Completely motivated, she “jammed through” National University to earn her teaching credential, taking night classes and student teaching. Her third year at South Bay she was named Teacher of the Year and she took on an administrative role as principal at age 31.

“I had my dad’s blood,” Parker said of her ability to lead, to see the big picture, build relationships and help a school be successful.

Coming to Cardiff ended up being the ideal culture for her. “I’ve been able to embody the culture of Cardiff as a community: warm, caring, accepting and putting relationships first,” she said.

Christa Stone, a kindergarten teacher who has worked with Parker for 25 years, said it will be hard to imagine the school without her.

“She adapted to Cardiff so well,” Stone said.

Parker fit right in with her easygoing, friendly and adventurous nature, her sunny smile and tan reflecting time spent enjoying the outdoors. The Solana Beach resident had a scenic commute too—driving up the 101 for 26 years.

Stone said at Cardiff, Parker instituted traditions like Cardio Club, special school spirit days and assemblies—the “Good morning Ms. Parker!”s ringing out clear as the school’s historic Cullen Bell.

“She made it a point to really know each student by name and face and she knows the staff really well,” Stone said.

Julie Parker with signs created by students.
(Karen Billing)

During the pandemic, Stone said Parker visited each staff member’s home and gave them a personalized gift, each one different from the others to make sure everyone felt valued, respected and connected.

Parker’s last year in education ended up being marked by the pandemic, one of the most challenging years for school districts throughout the country. The hardest part was the inability to connect and the loss of personal contact, “not being able to build a sense of community was very challenging.” Parker and the Cardiff teachers did everything they could to compensate and make sure everyone felt a part of the school —Parker was present on countless Zooms and was ready to welcome students back to in-person learning in October.

When the kids did come back, they came back to the new classrooms of the Cardiff School rebuild.

“I’m so proud of this construction project,” said Parker of what she considers her greatest accomplishment at the school. “It is the learning environment that this community deserved.”

Parker said she put a lot of time and love into the rebuild project and while it’s not yet complete, she’s thrilled with how it has turned out: a beautiful, functional campus with ocean views and breezes that embraces outdoor learning.

Parker had a say in suggesting the ocean blue hues on the campus’ new buildings that are bright and playful. The fire truck play structure, which Parker said she has personally dismantled and put back together multiple times, remains in the kindergarten play area. Her beloved wall balls, now six of them, are now in cheerful rainbow colors with the blue one stamped with “The Cardiff Way” as it was on the old campus: “Act responsibly, be honest, care for others, show respect.”

Saying goodbye to the kids, the campus, the community and the culture will not be easy but Parker feels she has worked hard and earned the time to relax.

“I’m just ready,” she said. Her son is headed off to college and she has a very active lifestyle that includes surfing, mountain biking and golfing, and she is looking forward to having more time for doing all of those things, not just on the weekends and holidays.

The school community said goodbye on June 9 with a drive-through celebration with parents and former students. Throughout the morning, students and staff tried to contain Parker to her office so as to not spoil a surprise dance party they had waiting for her in the afternoon.

A band set up outside and played multiple sets as each classroom cohort came out to party with the principal.

To the delight of the students, Parker danced with each class on the blacktop with its ocean views and breezes in her very Cardiff way.