Superintendent, Kent School District
How did your interest in education begin?
My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic, a servant leadership perspective and a keen understanding of the importance of developing meaningful relationships with others. As long as I can remember, the concepts of learning, service to others, and making positive choices were firmly stressed in the Watts' household. I recall my parents supporting my needs and providing me with leadership and collaborative experiences—and as an only child, I now realize the genius in their parenting.
I was a typical child who enjoyed sports, school and travelling. I was not perfect by any means, however, when I made youthful mistakes, I recall my parents' willingness to show tough love and hold me accountable through the power of teaching. They taught me lessons that have shaped how I learn and lead today, including the importance of reading, writing, public speaking, physical and mental fitness, and thinking critically.
At that time, my dad worked and eventually retired from the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Bellevue. My mom began her career as a school nurse in Seattle Public Schools and would eventually serve as chief of disaster and health services, American Red Cross in Alexandria, Va. I was so impressed by their efforts to teach, guide and strengthen relationships with others for the purpose of influencing outcomes and ensuring that other people were better off as a result. This is the essence of education, and based upon my parents' influence, I believe I was destined to teach.
How have you been involved in education, professionally or as an advocate, over the years?
Born in Seattle and raised in Bellevue, I have dedicated myself to serving all students “as if they had my last name.” During my 25-year career in K-12 education, I also have worked to ensure that each child has the opportunity to receive high quality instruction and experience success in college, career and life upon graduation.
Before venturing to the Southeast, my professional teaching career began in Seattle Public Schools at South Shore Middle School as a 6th grade teacher. Upon relocating to Atlanta, Ga. in 1994, my professional career in education included service as a teacher in richly diverse school districts like Atlanta Public Schools and Carrollton City (Ga.) Schools. My administrative career began in The Archdiocese of Atlanta where I began serving as an assistant principal and middle school coordinator in a K-8 school, and continued in Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools (GCPS), the 13th largest school district in the nation.
Given these experiences, and my successful work in GCPS as an assistant principal, principal, a supervisor of as many as 43 (K-12) principals and more than 50,000 students, and a curriculum and instructional leader, I was selected by the Kent School District (KSD) Board of Directors in 2015 to lead KSD, the 5th largest school district (27,000 students) in Washington state. And KSD is where I humbly and proudly serve today.
What one or two education issues are you most passionate about (and why)?
I am often asked why I chose to become a teacher and what issues matter greatly to me. My response to that question is simple—leadership and equity. However, these two concepts are hardly easy to implement. Personally, they involve my willingness and ability to lead instructionally, operationally, and with 21st century skills in mind to improve the quality of life for a student, a family, and our broader community. On more frequent occasions, I am asked why I chose to become a superintendent. While the question differs slightly, my answer remains constant. Through leadership and a commitment to equity, I now have the opportunity to build consensus, turn vision into reality, to set legacy goals that ensure all students are achieving at increasingly higher levels regardless of ZIP code, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status or linguistic ability, and to do so with an increased scope of influence over time.
I am humbled and energized by this awesome responsibility, and I realize that those around me must be focused on the same end result in order for the goal to be achieved and sustained. To that end, what keeps me up at night is the exact same thing that wakes me up in the morning—how to more effectively lead people and manage systems that provide equitable access and opportunity to resources, in order to ensure equality of outcomes.
Tell us about an educator who made a particularly large impact on your life.
Dr. Edward Washington, English literature professor, Howard University, was a tremendous influence on why I choose to remain in this lifelong mission of education. I recall his depth and breadth of knowledge and his willingness to share it and inspire others to do the same. To this day, I can recite excerpts from William Shakespeare's seminal works. It was this love of language and literature, and the power that reading and viewing the articulated word on stage exerted on my imagination that propelled me to not only teach students to love reading, but also to create experiences for learners that would last a lifetime.
In terms of my own professional development, Dr. Washington also represented what "could be." In fact, it was not until my undergraduate experience at Howard University that I was led/taught by an educational leader who reflected both my gender and ethnicity. He looked like me. It was then, that I realized the power of the statement, "If I don't see 'me', how will I know that I can be 'me'." Ultimately, it was through thoughtful conversations about literature, service to others, and reflective discussions about "what I wanted to be when I grew up" that helped solidify my career choice during undergrad. Dr. Washington reinforced the importance of leadership, service learning, inter- and intrapersonal communication and dual-consciousness. I certainly owe him a debt of gratitude for his influence on my career choice.
Share an unusual/fun fact about yourself.
My absolute joys in life are spending time with family, traveling, cooking and eating great food. I have had the honor and privilege to spend a summer living in Geneva, Switzerland, experience an amazing adventure in South Africa (Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg) with my wife, and my son and I both dared to swim with the dolphins in the Bahamas. This is the result of another valuable lesson I learned from parents. They often reminded me that if I spent money on anything, I should invest in an experience. That way, no one could ever take it away from me.