Semifinalists make case for becoming next Edmonds School District superintendent

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    School Board members begin the interview process Saturday morning with semifinalist Carolyn O'Keefe.
    School Board members begin the interview process Saturday morning with semifinalist Carolyn O’Keeffe.

    Collaboration. Trust. Relationship building. Innovation.

    Those were among the themes expressed by six semifinalists vying to replace retiring Edmonds School District Superintendent Nick Brossoit during public interviews with the Edmonds School Board at Edmonds-Woodway High School Saturday.

    One by one, in approximately 45-minute increments, each of the candidates — four women and two men — shared why they would be the best fit to lead the district that serves more than 20,000 students in the communities of Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, unincorporated Snohomish County and Woodway.

    All except one are currently serving as administrators in Washington state school districts. (The other is in nearby Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.) Two have Edmonds School District ties as either a former teacher or principal.

    District teachers, staff and community members were also present to observe the interviews, and were able to offer feedback through a ratings system that will be shared with the school board.

    A synopsis of the first three candidate interviews is below. We will have the second set of three interviews posted on Sunday.

    Based on the interviews and public feedback, the school board now will narrow the candidate field to three. Those finalists will visit the school district on March 28, 29, and 30 — one candidate each day — where they will have the opportunity to tour schools and meet with staff and administrators.

    The final step will be a community public forum to meet the three finalists on March 31 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Mountlake Terrace High School Theater. Community members will have an opportunity to ask questions and complete feedback forms to share with the school board.

    If you are unable to attend the forum, it will be streamed live via www.edmonds.wednet.edu/ESDlive on March 31. Lynnwood Today will also embed the live stream on the website for our viewers to watch.

    Carolyn O'Keefe currently serves as Deputy Superintendent of the nearby Northshore School District.
    Carolyn O’Keefe currently serves as Deputy Superintendent of the nearby Northshore School District.

    Carolyn O’Keeffe

    O’Keeffe has been with Northshore School District her entire career, beginning as a classroom teacher in 1978 and serving in various administrative roles since that time. She has served for the past three years as deputy superintendent for Northshore, which serves more than 21,000 students in Bothell, Kenmore and Woodinville, plus areas of unincorporated King and Snohomish counties.

    She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University in foreign languages and literature, and master’s and doctor of education degrees from the University of Washington.

    She currently is overseeing a major district initiative to transition its current K-6 elementary, 7-9 middle and 10-12 high school grade configuration to one that is K-5, 6-8 and a 9-12, along with a fourth high school, all ready to open by the 2017-18 school year.

    “I see Northshore and Edmonds as comparable districts,” O’Keeffe said. “We’ve had changing demographics as you have; our free- and reduced-meals, our population is increasing…but also our families of color, our race, ethnicity and cultures is definitely increasing over the years where we are moving away from 70, 74 percent white and more toward 62 percent.”

    The issue of what role the superintendent plays in serving the economically diverse and increasingly multicultural Edmonds School District was a question asked of every candidate. O’Keeffe said the superintendent serves “as the chief spokesperson and advocate for the vision of promoting equity and diversity throughout the district, and for me there’s a moral imperative that we try to figure out how we reach all students and all families.”

    Asked about her leadership and management style, O’Keeffe described herself as “a very open, collaborative leader. I believe in a strong team and the way that we get our work done is working together, and believing in each other and having that trusting relationship that we’re all in it for the kids.”

    Citing projects she was proud of, O’Keeffe mentioned her efforts to revamp programs for secondary students, especially those who might be struggling in a traditional school setting, and for those needing credit retrieval both online and during summer school.

    She also talked about Northshore’s work on preschool-third grade (P-3) education initiatives, with a focus on ensuring kindergartners are ready for first grade and that students “are either meeting or exceeding standard for reading by the end of the third grade.”

    Chrys Sweeting is assistant superintendent in the Puyallup School District.
    Chrys Sweeting is assistant superintendent in the Puyallup School District.

    Chrys Sweeting

    Sweeting has been with the Puyallup School District since 2001, and currently serves as a assistant superintendent for instruction, learning, curriculum & assessment for the district of more than 22,000 students. She has a background in special education, serving both as a special education teacher and an executive director for special services. “I really have a heart for that,” Sweeting said.

    She received her bachelor’s degree in education from Central Washington University and her master’s and doctor of education degrees from the University of Washington.

    “My leadership style is very open and transparent,” Sweeting said. “I’m very approachable, very collaborative. I manage well, but I manage well only to lead better. That’s who I am.”

    During the last 15 years I have engaged and been involved in my current district with increased diversity,” Sweeting said, adding she is “working very intently with a group of district leaders to embed culturally responsive practices and attitudes into our professional development.”

    In terms of accomplishments, Sweeting pointed to the Puyallup Open Doors program she began three years ago to help students who weren’t finishing high school. “The Open Doors is re-engaging students who have dropped out or who are high risk,” she said. Right now we have 130 students engaged in that program with 50 on target and on track to graduate this spring,” she said. “I’m proud of that.”

    As for P-3 education, Sweeting said that when it comes to kindergarten readiness, “not everyone is at the same starting line,” and early intervention is key. For the past 11 years, she has led efforts in the Puyallup School District to connect the district with early learning providers and parents to share best practices for preschool-third grade learning.

    Matt Handelman
    Matt Handelman

    Matt Handelman

    Currently the Superintendent of the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho School District, Handelman noted his Edmonds School District roots as a principal at Maplewood K-8 Parent Cooperative from 1996-99.

    “I loved working here. It’s a great district,” said Handelman, who left Edmonds to serve as an elementary school principal in Seattle and Spokane. He became associate superintendent in Coeur d’Alene in 2010 and was named superintendent of the 10,000-plus-student district in 2013.

    Noting his desire to return to Washington state, Handelman said he has seen a number of open superintendent positions “but I’ve applied only to Edmonds, because Edmonds is a place that I know I’d like to be and have an opportunity to return full circle…and lead a great district.”

    Handelman earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Amherst College and his master’s in teaching from Lewis and Clark College, and also completed the superintendent certification program through Washington State University.

    He described his leadership style as “one of inclusivity and joint decision making. I believe in gathering as much information with as many perspectives as possible when making decisions.”

    “The key to all of this is communication,” he added. “We need to make sure we are listening to each other, honoring each other’s ideas and challenging each other.”

    He talked about his initiation in Coeur d’Alene to study standards-based grading, which aims to tackle the “sacred cow” of grades by rethinking how students are graded. “Grades work great for students who are fitting into the mold of schools as we know them,” Handelman said. The idea behind standards-based grading is “to put kids on winning streaks who often get on losing streaks when they are faced with the big fat D or F, and figure out how we can get them to learn it and be interested in learning rather than just the grades.” Coeur d’Alene Principals and teachers are studying the issue with the goal of “changing the grading mindset,” Handelman said. “We are trying to get people to understand what their own grading practices do for kids and to kids sometimes in terms of encouraging them and discouraging them.”

    Regarding how he would address the Edmonds School District’s increasingly diverse population, Handelman said that would be “vocal and forthright” about the need for equity of opportunity for students. He noted that when he became principal of Maplewood K-8 school in 1996, it astounded him that families could sign their child up to be on the school’s wait list during the calendar year that their child turned 3. “I felt like that was a huge equity issue,” Handelman said. “You certainly had to be in the know way, way in advance.” He worked with the principal of Madrona K-8, another Edmonds School District choice school, to make the process more equitable, implementing a lottery system. “We made sure we advertised what was going on so there was an opportunity for everyone to be there,” he said.

    — Story and photos by Teresa Wippel

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