Looking into her future, reflecting on her past ; Principal Geree Santarelli’s time at Arvada West has come to an end


Santarelli gives a speech at the Class of 2023’s graduation. When she sees a ‘sea of purple’, Santarelli says she feels immense pride. Photo courtesy of Sue Raney Santarelli’s secretary

As a child, Geree Santarelli “always talked.” However, “When I was a child growing up, we didn’t have much of a voice, you learned what you learned, and you didn’t question,” Santarelli shares. How things have changed.

The seventh of ten children, with five brothers, three sisters, and 14 years age difference from the youngest to the oldest, Santarelli reflects how “My siblings were older and moved on, but I just remembered teaching.”

Despite taking a liking to education (even in a pretend manner) at a young age, Santarelli didn’t originally plan to be a principal. “My degree is in forestry and natural resource management from Colorado State University. That’s where I started and I started out of college, and I loved what I did,” she shares. After college, “I worked for the state forest service for a while, I worked for the feds (federal government) for a while.” 

However, she wanted to have a family. While this may not seem like a big deal, Santarelli points out how, “In the late ’80s, the early ’90s, first of all, it wasn’t very nice to females to begin with, it was very much a man’s world, but a female that wanted to have a family…”

Luckily, Santarelli had a backup plan. “While I have a forestry and natural research management degree, one of my minors is conservation education” she explains. “I’m like, ‘I would love to do that, I would love to teach about conservation ecology and all that kind of stuff.’ ” She proceeded to earn her teaching license, and then “taught science and some math for about 10 years. After residing in Bennet, Colorado, Santarelli moved to New Mexico and Texas before eventually returning to Colorado and finding a home.

Santarelli’s decision to become an administrator was actually quite simple, she shares, “Somebody said ‘you’d make a good administrator,’ and I was like ‘I’ll have to get a masters,’ and I got my masters, and then I started doing that.”

After returning to Colorado, “I did a few years in Adams 1, and then I took a dean job in Cherry Creek, so I was a dean in Cherry Creek for three years, and then I moved here, and I’ve been here 23 years,” Santarelli explains. 

Upon joining Arvada West, Santarelli was referred to as a 190 AP (Assistant Principal). This entailed a lot of attendance and discipline and, as Santarelli states, “all the jobs the other APs didn’t want to do.” She stuck with her position until eventually being named principal in 2000, taking over from her predecessor, Dr. Robert Bishop.

Just like Santarelli’s job, A-West was very different 20 years ago. In fact, “I came to Arvada West in 1999, and this school was about 2,400 students,” Santarelli shares. “We were on a split schedule, so the school was so large that we couldn’t get all our kids in the building at the same time. This resulted in “…freshmen and sophomores that would come in around 10 in the morning, and our juniors and seniors would come in really early, and at a certain point we would have all the kids in the building, but only for a couple of periods, but then our juniors and seniors disappeared, and our freshmen and sophomores went to school till around four o’clock, just to be able to maintain the building.”

A year later, in 2000, Ralston Valley was opened, lessening the burden on A-West. “It was kind of nice the next year when we decreased in size a little bit” Santarelli shares. “We were still pretty big, but you could move around.” Despite this, she, and all the students were still in the old building, built in 1963. As the school got bigger, this led to atriums being converted into classrooms, which were then closed off. Santarelli shares that, “there were halls if the lights went off it was pitch black because there wasn’t a light in there, there wasn’t a window.” 

However, “They kept expanding on, and they built all the way they built the e-wing, which was an extension, and finally, they decided they were going to redo the building, and they realized it was going to be more expensive to redo the building then it was to build brand new.”

It was at this time when the West Wing was constructed, which was “a freestanding building for a  number of years.” All of this ended up being a means to an end, and “once they realized we couldn’t redo the building at all, that they were going to have to build brand new, they added on the rest of the building.”

Santarelli vividly remembers the day they tore the building down. “We stood here, my kids were younger, and we just stood there and watched them with this big machine tearing the old building apart,” she reflects. It was the beginning of the end for the old building, but signaled a fresh start for A-West and Santarelli.


Change seemed to be a recurring theme in the lives of many, at the turn of the century. From new students to new staff, to new administration, A-West has seen changes over the years. Every student and staff member that has stepped foot in the school building has had some impact on the A-West community, has made memories at the same time, and ultimately has left a mark on the school. Over her 23 consecutive years of work at A-West, Santarelli has undoubtedly made her own memories and has built relationships with her staff. Her decision to retire came out to the A-west community in early 2023 and sparked a number of reactions from not only the students and community but reactions from her staff. 

 “…It is hard to make that decision, it is hard for everybody. The staff like continuity…On the other hand, I always thought it was best to try really hard in school. I’ll miss them. There’s a lot of people I’ve been here with for the whole time, or I hired them, I hired Mr. Bloom. I hired Mr. Maunu. It is the teachers that you sit on their committees and they’re still here. You feel a kinship with the staff because you’ve been through all of this. There’s a lot of things you go through as a school over 23 years.”

Santarelli continues to entail the depth of the relationship she has built with her staff over the years despite the changes that have happened over time,“…You know their life. They’ve been through your ups and downs with them.. That’s the nice thing about Arvada West, is that teachers really care about each other…spouses have died, and things have changed, but it’s always been the same that people have been here to support each other.”

After all her years at A-West, change has been brought to the life of Santarelli, and the life of A-West staff. She reflects fondly on one of her favorite memories with her A-west staff. “The year my daughter was born was in 2000. That year we had 10 babies born at Arvada West high school. It is like every month a member of the staff had a baby… So this guy took a picture of all the babies lined up that year…. They all dressed in little purple shirts and had denim. That’s the kind of stuff you miss.”

In 2020, 20 years after when Ralston Valley high school opened, the new A-West building was under construction, and of course, the ‘2000’s’ baby photo was taken, the world saw a change that impacted the lives of every single person on the face of the planet. When Coronavirus (more commonly known as Covid-19), was first found in Wuhan, China, and spread worldwide, students across the globe were sent into lockdown. As an administrator at the time, this was a rapidly arising problem that Santarelli had at her hands.

They called us and said all principals now… we had been hearing about this, but I truly never thought we’d shut down schools… we got there and they said we are going remote. They told us on a Thursday or a Wednesday, but we had one day to tell our staff to get you guys prepared to go completely remote… March, April, and May were hard.”

While the end of the 2019-2020 school year put troubles on A-West as a whole, Santarelli believes that it hit the class of 2020 the hardest. To her, this was the hardest part of facing the pandemic as an administrator to her, because the class of 2020, “..lost their prom, they lost all their senior day and all that stuff…It was so awful.”

To Santerelli, her top priority has always been putting the students of A-West first, and fulfilling actions that serve the student body as a whole. Throughout the pandemic, she did think about her decisions and how they impacted her students, she explains,“… just kept saying ‘I hope we are doing this for the right reason for your kids’…. I just really feel like Covid hit our kids really really hard…”

Change is often a topic that is met with mixed reactions. Some chose to embrace change, while others dread it. A lot can change over 23 years. Santarelli says that her favorite change in her time as an educator at A-West is, “…there is more accountability in education now, which I think is a real positive thing. When I was a kid it did not matter. If the teacher said it, you did it. You kept your mouth shut…kids have a voice.… I like that there is questioning, appropriate questioning.”

Another change that Santarelli notes as a positive during her time as an educator is not only student accountability for advocating their needs in education but accountability from an administrative point of view. In her own words, this is something she “really pushed for”, over her five years as principal. She elaborates on her belief of the importance and power when an administration takes accountability for their student’s education, “I think it’s time for us to say, are we really doing what’s right for our kids? Is our graduation rate where it is supposed to be? Are our kids really learning? Are we creating avenues for them to do something post-high school? …We really gotta start looking for an education in a way where it’s not just you’re here for four years then you get college. Not every kid wants to go to college. I think we need to provide those opportunities for kids in other ways. “

Santarelli seems to agree with the idea that every student’s educational needs are different and she constantly emphasizes the idea of pathways. “Find something you are interested in and find a pathway. Even if you want to go to college for that pathway, is there a way for you to get some of that college paid for? Is there a way for you to work through some of that college, so you’re not taking on huge amounts of debt to get a degree? Even if you don’t want to go to college, is there a way to get a career this way? Or the military. Or whatever it is.”

 “I think that as educators all over we need to think that for a long time, the district’s college starts in kindergarten… That was a motto one of our previous Superintendents had. I don’t think that’s always the case. I don’t think every kid had to go to college. I think kids can find avenues that can make them just as happy without a college degree. A trade, two-year degree, certificates. There’s all those things,” Santarelli believes.

Every year, there are a number of annual traditions that happen during the school year at A-West. From homecoming to prom, to trick or treat street, to wish week, or the swing dance, these events are not only something that Santarelli has looked forward to but are events that have defined her experience at A-West. She explains her love and history with these annual events, “I get to as many events as I can. My kids have been in them. Trick or Treat Street is just one of those nights where I love to watch the community come in. I love to see the kids.”

She continues to elaborate on the reason why these traditions have meant so much to her, and how they have been key moments in her time at A-West,” A lot of times I ran them. I was in charge of National Honors Society for a number of years, as an activities director.” “When you’ve been here that long, you become part of the culture, and I love it. I’ll have to go to a game and hide in the back, and sing the fight song…”, she says.

Over the past four years, the class of 2023’s high school career has unfolded. Each and every current senior at A-West experience has been made of their own highs and lows that create the knitting of their own high school experience. From their Freshman days in the pandemic to the last few months of high school, these moments do not only define their experience but Santarelli’s memories and time with the class of 2023.

At the end of the year, there is an assembly at A-West where the seniors walk through a gauntlet of teachers: with the purpose of having an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’ Santarelli counts this assembly in 2022 as her favorite memory with the upcoming graduating class of 2023. She explains, “For them to be at their first assembly. …they never had that opportunity to stand in that freshman stand and sing the fight song. To get them over and see that first assembly was like they’re finally here.”

 To Santerelli, this is the prime moment when the connections that are formed throughout the years of high school have their moments in the limelight: the moment when the impact and relationships between the staff and the current senior class is shown to the student body. She emphasizes the meaning of the moment as the defining point of the importance in a high school career: the reason behind student’s memories that will strongly linger after high school, the reason why students keep persevering when the road of education gets rough, and the reason she has stayed at A-West for 23 years. She puts it simply and says, “When they leave, it’s those connections. That’s my big thing. Education is all about connections and relationships. Kids don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

  She adds to her point, “I wouldn’t have stayed in Arvada West if I did not feel like this was a family, and that you connected with people. You don’t stay at places like that… You want that feeling that this is a good place to be… I never would’ve stayed here if I did not feel that way.”

While reflecting on the moments spent at A-West, Santarelli says that graduations have been the most important moments to her and that they have left her with the wisdom she will take out into life after retirement. “It’s just pride, it’s like looking at all of these kids that have done it. Some of them have done it through the most difficult circumstances. The kids are working because their parents can’t provide enough for their families, or something happens in their life. Everybody has been able to get to where they are. Then we are all together that one last time as a class of 2023. You look out into that sea of purple, and you’re like this is why you do this job.”

At the end of the day, her reasoning behind 23 years at A-West comes down to the relationships she has built and their impact on her. Santarelli believes that her legacy isn’t her job as an admin, or what she has done to shape and change A-West. Instead, her true legacy is the relationships and connections she has made, what they have taught her, and how she will carry that out into her life after June 2023.

Among everything Santarelli has said about A-West, the community, and her time here, one thing was clear. That there was no relationship or connection more important than one. The students. She reflects on her favorite parts of education. “Kids have had the biggest impact on my life. Having kids run in and say, ‘I got into the Air Force Academy!’ Or ‘I got into my favorite college!’ ‘This is my plan’, or ‘I’m going to graduate!’ We had a kid this year who never thought she would graduate… The day she found out she was like ‘I’m graduating!’ We hugged her and gave her a purple gown, went outside, and took pictures. That’s the kind of stuff.”

“This has never been about me, It’s all about you guys and transitioning. I won’t even say anything at graduation because I don’t want it to be about me. This is the class of 2023 graduation. It’s not about me. It’s about you, it’s about kids”, Santarelli shares. Photo courtesy of Sue Raney, Santarelli’s secretary.

She even credits the students at A-West as her biggest supporter and influencer. “It’s not a particular person. It truly is the students.”

However, among the bittersweet memories and beautiful connections Santarelli has made with her students, there are still darker things that splatter over an otherwise beautiful story. “As a principal, it is my greatest fear that I would have violence in my school that would negatively impact my kids. It keeps principals up at night…To think that I have to worry about them with violence… It is undoubtedly my greatest fear.” This is when tears prick Santarelli’s eyes, and she pauses to compose herself. 

After a moment, she explains her experience at the beginning of gun violence in education. “I came to Jeffco several months after Columbine happened. I was in Cherry Creek when Columbine happened. I remember locking the schools down. It was such an abnormal thing. Now, it worries me that our kids think that it is normal.”

Santarelli struggles with the idea that she can’t fix the problem and says she does everything in her power to keep her students safe. “I don’t know how to stop it, because I think it’s a mental health issue. It’s that people don’t know how to cope. I don’t understand how you can cope by hurting others…That’s why I’m always willing to call a hold. We are going to keep this building safe. That is why our doors are alarmed. If that is another deterrent to somebody to get into my building and hurt my kids then we are going to do it.”

Again, even when struggling with a topic as difficult as gun violence, Santarelli always focuses on her students and how she can help them and keep them safe. 

If there’s one thing that can be said about Santarelli, it is that she is completely and utterly dedicated to her students. And so she leaves them with one nugget of wisdom for the class of 2023. “I think everything you do in life you learn from something. Every person that comes into your life you learn something from them whether or not you remember it, it is in there.”

As Santaralli sends the next class of A-West students on their way, the focus shifts to Santarelli’s future after A-West. 

There have been some bittersweet emotions with Santarelli’s retirement, especially coming from her. Santerelli has been working at A-West for so long that it has become an important part of her life, making it hard to leave behind. Since she has grown close to her students over the years she has become proud of them for being resilient throughout difficult times. 

“I think that we just screwed kids so badly during Covid. Just to see them come through it. Like you’ve done it. The resilience it built in kids. Some kids didn’t. They kind of fell

by the wayside, because they use it as an excuse. I think everything you do in life you learn from something. Every person that comes into your life you learn something from them whether or not you remember it, it is in there… It’ll make me sad.” 

Since Santarelli has been a principal for so many years, she takes a certain pride in her students. 

“…The pride I take in it is like ‘Those are my students.’ To just say those are my kids, the pride you feel. It just kind of hits sometimes, I’m never going to feel that anymore. These are not going to be my kids anymore. That hits a little bit. It’s bittersweet because I know someone else will not come here. No matter what principle is in here, it’s not the job…It’s the kids, it’s the families, it’s the communities, that makes this school what it is. It’s not me at all…It’s the teachers, it’s the people you know, it’s everybody working together. I’m sure there will be some tears shed at some point.”

With Santarelli retiring, many are wondering if there is going to be a ceremony for her, to celebrate the things she has done for this school and her amazing time here as a principal. However, she explains that she does not want a ceremony, as she doesn’t want to ruin the seniors’ last year by overshadowing them with her retirement. 

Santarelli elaborates, “Nope. This has never been about me, It’s all about you guys and transitioning. I won’t even say anything at graduation because I don’t want it to be about me. This is the class of 2023 graduation. It’s not about me. It’s about you, it’s about kids. I’ve even told my family that we don’t need anything. My husband is probably going to retire too. He’s an administrator at Pomona. We’re just happy. We have a grandbaby. He’s 20 months old, and in May we have another one coming! I had one of my sons recently get engaged. We’ll be planning that. That’s stuff I’ll look forward to. I think it’s just another segway into another stage of life.” 

And as she segways into that next phase, Santarelli reflects, smiling about what she’ll miss after retirement.

“I’ll miss the kids. I always think you guys keep me young. I’m like really I never thought of that. I’ve always loved that. I love the band. I love being in classrooms when the light bulb goes on and I get to see different things” she confesses. Being at a place for 23 years and then deciding to leave is hard. Santarelli loves the community, and the community has played a role in a lot of decisions and that was what she loves most about it.  When making the decision to leave it was hard for her. She was planning on staying another year.

“When I was making this decision, even now when I went to the band concert, I thought ‘I hope I’m doing the right thing.’ I’ll miss that kind of stuff and I didn’t really think about it. I had planned to go another year. It wasn’t until January or February when my husband and I started talking about what our plan was” she explains. There are always going to be things that hold you back from doing something, but as she shares sometimes you just need someone to talk to, and for her, it was her husband. Students and staff alike are going to miss her, as she has made such a big impact on everyone to whom she talks. Overall, Santarelli is just a positive person. She has her good days and her bad days, but in the end, she loves her job and the A-West community. 

Over the course of her illustrious career, Santarelli has served A-West with unabashed pride and humbleness. Never searching for the spotlight, Santarelli lets her actions define her legacy.

Ultimately, her sole focus was to develop positive change within the school. Santarelli relays the fact that, “It was never about me, have we made positive changes when I’ve been here?”

In a sense, her legacy is more about the impact that A-West has had on students over the course of their high school years, such as creating pathways for kids to graduate, which is what Santarelli truly loves to see. No matter what, it always seemed as though Santarelli pushed for anything that was in the best interest of her students. A recent example of this can be seen in the remodeling of the weight rooms. This is going into effect simply because, in Santarelli’s words, “It really needed to be redone.”

Not every decision a principal makes, or any leader for that matter, is respected. In life, there are always going to be those who ridicule and complain about decisions made. However, Santarelli has learned how to block out the noise and stay true to her heart over the years. “When I make a decision it is for the best interest of the kids. It’s easy to think about what works great for teachers. This works great for the community. But is this in the best interests of my students? That’s what I hope kids remember. Some people love you, but you’re never everybody’s cup of tea. Never. I just want to feel like I made decisions the right way.”

Upon following through with her goals, Santarelli has fostered an inclusive school that is centered around its students. Santarelli ultimately plans on going out with the class of 2023. Which is quite ironic in itself being that after 23 years of teaching, she will retire in 2023.

There is so much worldly wisdom that can be passed down to students upon her departure. As many wildcats graduate within the next few years, they will be embarking on a whole new world. A world that is in need of kindness and critical thinkers. Of which, Santarelli offers some lasting advice for not only the graduating class but for all A-West high schoolers to live by.

Santarelli states, “One of the things I see right now in our world is that everybody feels like they have to be right. Everybody feels like the way they think is the right way, and no one is willing to look at the other side. The one thing I would say is to open your mind and even listen. That’s the one thing: listen. Even though you might not agree, we are all human beings. We might not agree on something, it doesn’t mean you’re bad, it just means we don’t agree. It doesn’t mean I can’t be your friend, because we don’t agree on something. Stop thinking the world is so black and white. Realize that there’s a lot of gray in there, and you can be kind.”

Be kind, be kind, be kind. What better words to live by? We can all take a little piece of Santarelli’s wisdom and use it within our own lives, as oftentimes you will be remembered for your actions and attitude towards others rather than your outward appearance. 

All bliss must come to an end and even the greats deserve to enjoy retired life. Time won’t stop and before you know it, this high school year will come to a close. Santarelli will go off into the sunset and enjoy some much-needed time with family. Her son is struggling with a new baby in the house and she plans to babysit at some point. Santerelli has some plans already in the works, “We’re going to take him to the zoo. We’re going to buy him a new set of golf clubs… We bought him a fishing pole, and we’re going to do that kind of stuff.”

Santarelli also hopes to explore new traveling endeavors and reconnect with her three sons and daughter to fulfill her adventurous and loving demeanor. Santarelli says, “We’re going to do more traveling. Our youngest son lives in Seattle, Washington, and he’s an Army doc. My other son is a major in the Army and he’s in the Space Force. He’s currently in Monterey, California to get his master’s, and then come back to Colorado Springs. My daughter works for the army court of engineers in Cheyenne. It’s nice to be able to go back and forth and see her. My oldest son works for an energy company downtown. He was in the Army too… It just gives us opportunities to do stuff. I’m most looking forward to not having to work out at four a.m.”

Though she is stepping down from her beloved principalship at A-West, Santarelli will afford herself some much-needed and deserving rest. A-West has been truly blessed with 23 years of astute leadership that will never be forgotten. On May 17, students will graduate and launch into a promising future thanks to Santarelli and all of her hard work. The foundation has been built; it is now up to students and staff to keep up the A-West standard and live out her legacy.