Several Whitties who are engaged with local schools through volunteer service and internships gathered in Reid 207 last Wednesday morning, October 5, for coffee and conversation with Walla Walla Public School’s new Superintendent, Wade Smith. Smith came to our community this past July from Hermiston, OR where he served as Deputy Superintendent. A first-generation college student, he values his liberal arts education in chemistry and instrumental music from Willamette University. His educational tenure includes experience as a classroom teacher, an elementary and secondary principal, and as both an assistant and an interim superintendent. His wife is a teacher in Milton-Freewater. Their two children attend Garrison Middle School and Walla Walla High School, respectively.
Like Whitman, Walla Walla Public Schools has begun planning and gathering data for a strategic planning process that will inform the district’s leadership and initiatives for at least the next 3-5 years. Superintendent Smith’s energy, intellect and hopefulness about change is infectious. One of his priorities is to develop “defined autonomy” so that school communities retain their own identities while still using a broader, pan-district systems approach. After hours of listening to diverse community members, Smith is convinced this is the starting point for a cohesive, effective district that needs to make significant changes in how we educate a changing demographic of increased poverty and trauma. Somewhat alarmingly, nearly 50% of Walla Walla’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Our schools cannot continue with educational models that worked 15 years ago. Current local poverty and lower academic levels with which students begin school demand something different. Smith shared that he wants to facilitate a major mental shift away from schools as “a place that teachers teach” and toward schools as “a place we believe all students can learn.”
To prepare K-12 students to be life-long learners, our district needs to hire and retain more staff of color. Currently, the WWPS district is 38% Latino, yet less than 10% of WWPS staff match that demographic. Bilingual, diverse staff are in high demand and Whitman students are favorably regarded by the district as potential candidates for all types of positions in the local educational system.
Smith’s comments about data points, passion for change, and belief in “the two Wallas” coming together to strengthen our schools were memorable, but more remarkable was his attention to engaging with people individually. He asked each Whitman student in attendance who they were, where they come from, why they do what they do, and, from their student perspective, what is missing from the local schools. He listened attentively, took notes, and asked follow-up questions. Prepared or not, Storytime Intern Kevin Miller’17, America Reads/America Counts Intern Ye He ’17, Whitman Teaches the Movement Intern Maddy Gold ’18, and ASWC Diversity and Inclusion Director Cherokee Washington ’17 were given the opportunity to share cohesive synopses about who they were in the context of this discussion. Their responses were personal, thoughtful, relevant, humorous and genuine – effective and compelling narratives about what matters to them, what they’ve done with that consciousness and why.
Are you ready to communicate authentically about yourself when least expected?
You never know when you’ll wind up in a conversation with someone – be it a school superintendent, a future mentor or a potential supervisor – who wants to learn about you! The Student Engagement Center can help you reflect on your one life at Whitman and weave together the experiences that collectively write your personal narrative. Make an appointment with one of us in the SEC today.