Superintendent, Highline Public Schools
How did your interest in education begin?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. My teaching career began at age 7 when I first taught to my class of stuffed animals. When I actually became a certificated teacher many years later, I quickly learned that this work was far harder and far more rewarding than I had anticipated. With all of the challenges, however, when I was in the classroom I knew, without a shred of doubt, that I was doing what I was put on this earth to do.
I loved teaching and I had no plans to leave the classroom, but life presents us with unexpected opportunities sometimes that take us down a different path. While I never had any aspirations to become an administrator, when I read about the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program in 2000 I was intrigued enough to apply and fortunate enough to be accepted. While I will always consider myself a teacher at heart, I absolutely love being a superintendent. The profound responsibility of making decisions that impact the lives of tens of thousands of children is one I take very seriously and personally. Leading school systems is not easy, however, and it is important to remember that leadership is not a popularity contest. Making hard decisions that people will disagree with is something you must get comfortable with if you are going to do what is best for children.
How have you been involved in education, professionally or as an advocate, over the years?
My first job out of college was working as an editorial assistant in the higher education division of Jossey-Bass Publishers. Within two years, however, I was back in school earning my master's and teaching credential and the rest of my career has been in education. I believe that a big part of being an educator is being an unapologetic advocate for all children, particularly today.
What one or two education issues are you most passionate about (and why)?
I am most passionate about figuring out how we take a district the size of Highline (20,000 students PK-12) and create systems that ensure every student is on a personalized path to post-secondary success. The question that I grapple with is how do we ensure every student is on track to graduate prepared for a future they choose without actually tracking them as we used to do. Ideally, I would like to have every student begin thinking about their future in elementary school so that once they enter high school they already have the high school and beyond plan started and they know what courses they need to take and have at least one adult in the school who knows them and supports them on their journey.
In Highline our promise is to know every student by name, strength and need so each graduates prepared for the future they choose. The challenge is operationalizing this promise so that every student doesn't just graduate, but graduates with goals and a plan. We must also celebrate every path our students take. We should not celebrate the student who gets a full-ride scholarship to study engineering at the University of Washington any more than we do the student who graduates and goes straight to work as a machinist at Boeing.
Tell us about an educator who made a particularly large impact on your life.
The teacher who made me the teacher and leader I am was my mentor teacher Nick Ferentinos. I was assigned to do my student teaching with Nick at Homestead High School in Cupertino, Calif., back in 1992. It was Nick who introduced me to scholastic journalism and eventually I took his place as adviser to the school newspaper, The Epitaph. During my first six weeks of student teaching Nick would sit in the back of the room and take copious notes on everything I did and said. He would then use his prep period to review those notes with me each day. He was brutally honest, but also kind, loving and supportive.
He instilled in me the need to bring my A game each and every day--not because I needed to impress him, but because that is what our students deserve. He was an amazing teacher and an amazing human being whom I was proud to call my mentor and friend until he passed away two years ago. If I could provide a fraction of the support and inspiration Nick gave me to a fellow educator I would feel extremely accomplished.
Share an unusual/fun fact about yourself.
My office is filled with rubber ducks of all kinds not because I attended the University of Oregon (I am a proud UC Berkeley alum!), but because my father calls me Duck and people now associate that with me. To this day he cannot remember why he started calling me that, but it has certainly stuck.
At my father's suggestion, several years ago I began giving out Ducky Awards to staff across Highline who go above and beyond to deliver on our promise of knowing every student by name, strength and need. I am always struck at how little it takes to make someone feel valued and how much it means. Knowing that someone sees you, appreciates you and knows how hard you work matters mightily. As a superintendent, it is a joy and a privilege to recognize and celebrate the incredible professionals who make me #HighlineProud each day.