The school district was having parent teacher conferences, but in the special education department, not a single parent showed up. Fredrika Smith, then a special education teacher in the district, decided to believe that the reason was not that the parents of the children didn't care.
She and a couple other teachers started asking around about why the parents hadn't come in for conferences. They learned that some of the parents, most of who lived on a tribal reservation, worked evenings. Others didn't feel very connected to the school district. Yet others did not think they would hear anything they hadn't heard before.
So the teachers asked what might be a better way to put the district and parents together. The tribal elders invited them to come to the reservation. The tribe held a traditional salmon dinner in the longhouse, and everyone came; not just parents, but grandparents, aunts, siblings and cousins. After that, student performance improved markedly.
"That was a big moment in my learning,GÇ¥ said Smith. "You ask the question, what can we do differently?GÇ¥
It was that focus on the needs of families and students that led the Monroe School District Board of Directors to hire Frederika Smith, Ph.D, to take over as Monroe School District superintendent, replacing the retiring Ken Hoover.
"We were most impressed by her passion for children and commitment to maintaining the humanity in public education,GÇ¥ said Katy Woods, president of Monroe's School Board.
As Smith prepared for her first school year at the helm of the Monroe School District, she sat down Friday to talk about her history in education, what brought her to Monroe, and the vision she has for the district.
Smith is somewhat unique among top administrators; she is working in the same region in which she grew up. Her father was a Marine from Seattle who served in Vietnam, and when his service was over, the family moved to Snohomish County. Smith eventually raised her family in Marysville.
It was while volunteering in her oldest daughter's kindergarten class that Smith's lifelong passion for education was ignited. As a child, Smith had a good experience in school, and has always assumed that everyone else had, too. But as a classroom volunteer, she began to notice that not everyone was able to enjoy school the way she had.
During a first-day-of-school activity, when each child was asked to find another child who had a dog, or wore glasses, or had some other characteristic, one little girl wasn't participating.
"It turns out she didn't speak English, she happened to be Spanish speaking,GÇ¥ said Smith. "I asked the teacher and she said that she didn't have a picture worksheet as a way to communicate with the little girl. She was a nice little girl, and she was as excited to be there as my little girl. I remember that.GÇ¥
Smith began to notice that some children didn't play as much during recess, and wondered why not. She also began to think about why some parents felt comfortable accessing resources in the school system, and others did not.
Learning about learning
Once her family was complete, Smith decided to go back to school, earning a teaching certificate in special education from Western Washington University, then going on to earn a long string of other academic titles, including a Master of Education, a post-graduate professional certification in school administration, another certificate in educational administration, followed by a Ph.D in educational leadership and policy studies, which she completed in 2012.
Smith worked through her graduate school years, serving as a teacher before becoming a high school assistant principal in Bellingham, where she worked her way up to Assistant Superintendent in just three years. She went on the become the executive director of teaching at the Mukilteo district, and took a post as a lecturer at the University of Washington's Bothell campus.
In 2012, Smith became the chief academic officer of the Puyallup School District, where she oversaw a third of the district, including managing the staffing of 32 schools, and all aspects of eight schools with a total of 7,500 students.
As she developed in her career, Smith remained focused on putting humans first in the education process.
"My general philosophy about public education is that we need to spend our time and resources thinking about the experiences of every child, and not get caught up in the politics and strings of education, but the children we are serving, and making sure the children are getting what they need,GÇ¥ she said.
Testing and other measures of accountability were important, she found, but there was a tendency for tests and other "stringsGÇ¥ to become the major priority of some school districts, at the expense of individual attention on each child.
And instead of looking for specific funding streams, such as grants for specific projects, and then creating the projects and then finding kids to put in them, Smith prefers to identify the children's needs first, and then use what resources are available in the most efficient way to meet those needs.
When the Monroe job opened, Smith wasn't particularly looking for a new position. But when she learned of the district's unusually large emphasis on alternative education, she decided to apply.
"This is the only place I applied for a superintendent job,GÇ¥ she said. "The alternative programs are a big indicator that the community is looking for ways to fit the school to the needs of the community. It's the whole community being open to rethinking how we create our system.GÇ¥
Finding a leader
Replacing a superintendent is not something the district does often. Ken Hoover and Bill Prenevost, the previous two superintendents, served nine and 12 years respectively. So to aid them in the process of finding the right person, the district hired consulting firm Northwest Leadership Associates.
In February, the community was invited to a number of sessions to talk about what qualities and experiences community members wanted in a superintendent. The consultants also went to the schools talk to staff and union leaders, ultimately gathering the feedback of about 400 people. Once the district's priorities became clear, the consultants set out to find suitable candidates.
More than 20 people from around the nation expressed interest in the job; of those, six were selected to visit the district on a Saturday.
"We started at 8 a.m. and went till 5 p.m., and from that, the board chose three finalists,GÇ¥ explained district spokesperson Rosemary O'Neil. "Those finalists were invited back for a whole day that included visiting schools, staff, students administrators and administrative staff, and in the evening there was a community forum.GÇ¥
The three finalists were Michelle Johnstone, superintendent of a district in Colorado, Tim Nootenboom, executive director for elementary teaching and-álearning for the Central Valley School District near Spokane, and Smith.
All the candidates were excellent, said school board president Katy Woods.
"This was a very difficult decision for the school board with so many wonderful candidates in our pool,GÇ¥ said Woods.
March 6, the district announced the hire of Frederika Smith.
Four months later, Smith, known as "DekaGÇ¥ to her friends, has had a chance to get her bearings.
Her philosophy in Monroe will remain the same as it has been everywhere else she has worked, she said.
"I think that public education can serve everyone,GÇ¥ she said. "We have the flexibility to create a system that serves everyone. We create our own world.GÇ¥
Sometimes that takes creative thinking, like the time she was working with troubled teens in the Meridian School District. The kids were not interested in school the way it was being presented, she said. So she invited them to help design a curriculum. They ended up learning some mathematical principals by building bicycles, they used language skills to write letters to solicit donations for supplies and they worked to find non-profits to which to give the finished bicycles.
"I want our system to set people up to be good community members,GÇ¥ she said. "There's no one path to being good neighbors.GÇ¥
She wants to create links between the district and families, such as the parent partnership program she help grow from 18 families to include the families of more than 1,000 kids. Or the buses she helped arrange for parent volunteers in the Meridian School District who had no transportation, or the family room she helped create in Puyallup so that parents without childcare could bring their young children with them to volunteer.
"You build the bridges,GÇ¥ she said. "That's part of what drew me to Monroe. We are bridge builders here.GÇ¥
Frederika Smith, Ph.D, is the Monroe School DistrictGÇÖs new superintendent. As she prepares for her first year at the helm of the district, she talked about her history and philosophy of education. Photo courtesy of the Monroe School District.
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