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Katherine Holtgraves will be missed after her retirement from Three Rivers June 30

SUBMITTED PHOTO - The 2016-17 staff worked together on building the current Three Rivers Charter School.Katherine Holtgraves, co-founder of Three Rivers Charter School in West Linn, considers the school to be a canvas of her personality: open, friendly, constructive and collaborative.

"It's personal," she said. "I think education is personal. I think kids are the most valuable things of parents. I think if we want our next generation to invest in our world then we have to invest in our world."

And that's exactly what she did during her years serving as a teacher in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District since 1991 and then as the co-founder and administrator of Three Rivers Charter School — an independent public school, operating in contract with the founders of the school and the WL-WV School Board. It provides a small, collaborative learning environment for fourth through eighth-graders.

Holtgraves poured her heart and soul into the charter school and built it from the ground up — literally — with co-founder Merilee Bales, who died last year from cancer. But her days as the school's "caretaker" will come to a halt June 30 as she plans for a busy first year of retirement.

"I think it's a great thing. I'm excited to see a new chapter and (for Katherine) to put (her) energy toward some other loves in (her) life," said Victoria Holtgraves, Katherine's daughter and a teacher at Three Rivers. "(She) won't always be away from this school. I think (she'll) always have a piece of it, whether it be coming in and doing a fun art lesson or maybe in a couple years from now (she) might want to read books with kids."

Katherine Holtgraves' idea to open Three Rivers in 2001 stemmed from a mixed-classroom program she led in the WL-WV School District. She wanted to mix grades and study the developmental progress in children.

"What is the learning arc?" she said. "We found out it was really amazing because some of the older kids needed remediation and the younger kids needed to advance, so the arc became the same no matter what age."

She was first hired at Willamette Primary in 1991 and was a mixed-classroom teacher for second and third-graders while Bales led a fourth and fifth grade mix. They then moved to a classroom at West Linn High School to continue on their program — research in action as they called it — and combined second through fifth-graders.

"They (the school district) then wanted to remodel the high school and we were not included in that, so they offered us a spot at Rosemont Ridge as it was just opening," Holtgraves said. "So we took (second through fifth-graders) to Rosemont Ridge, in a large classroom where we blended and experienced the middle school culture with elementary kids."

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: CLARA HOWELL - Katherine Holtgraves launched Three Rivers Charter School in 2001 and is set to retire later this month. Holtgraves said that after two years, when the district was opening Bolton as an elementary school, they wanted to move them again, but Holtgraves was done moving, so she investigated charter schools and decided to open one.

In June of 2001, Holtgraves and Bales were granted a charter and rented the Crown Credit Union building to house students for about 17 years before buying land and building the current Three Rivers building on Ek Road in West Linn.

"I thought people who ran charter schools were crazy just because it's very independent and you have to have a certain skill set to run them," Holtgraves said. "I'm very respectful of the skill set. You have to be business-oriented. It's a business, an education business."

And this school, which has an enrollment of slightly more than 100 students, is her legacy.

"I always want to effect positive change and I think this was a venue I felt I could do that with," Holtgraves said. "I saw through raising my own kids what was happening in the world in education and I knew I could do something different."

And it is clear from a handful of teachers that Holtgraves will be missed.

"I'm going to miss the open door. I even asked her to shut the door this morning so she could get some work done and she said, 'It's against my sole reason I'm on this earth to close this door,' so I'm going to miss being able to pop in and just shoot an idea off of her or show her a picture of my son, just share a moment of life," said teacher Megan Elston. "But I got a glimpse of what Katherine will be like without this job when she texted me a quick video of a musical delight at the James Taylor concert. I'm looking forward to more of these kinds of texts. Where in the world is Katherine Holtgraves?"

After transitioning the new administrator, Nic Chapin — former director at Oregon City's Alliance Charter Academy — into her position this summer, Holtgraves will be spending the first part of her retirement turning her basement into a room where she can do crafts. She will also be taking trips to places including Alaska, Hawaii and the Grand Canyon, all while building a cabin on Mt. Hood.

"Maybe I just need to do nothing," she said.

But when Holtgraves thinks back on her career, she views it as a dream.

"It's a dream that can go on without me and I believe that 100 percent," she said. "That's the hard dreams, the ones you create that can't go on without you. The trick is to have dreams go on without you."

Reporter Clara Howell can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-636-1281.

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