It took little time for Kelly Shea to get a clear impression of the passion Sequim has for its schools.
He wasn’t officially on the job as Sequim schools superintendent when, on April 23, students and parents asked the school board to retain a full complement of vocational programs.
“If public education is going to survive, we’ve got to learn to adapt to the needs and wants of our customers,” Shea said.
Shea is the 18th superintendent of Sequim’s public schools, making the transition from his home in Spokane as school district staffers make a transition in leaders. On July 1, Shea took over for Bill Bentley, superintendent from 2007 to June 2012.
Shea said he doesn’t expect to make wholesale changes in the district right away, but that change may come anyway to maintain high expectations for students and staff alike.
“It isn’t about me coming in, (saying), ‘Here’s how we’re going to do business.’ It’s about me embracing the culture here, showing respect for it,” Shea said. “I may come in and participate. It’s recognizing when a decision needs to be made.”
Shea hearkens back to his teaching days — he taught at Spokane elementary schools for 11 years — for perspective.
“As a teacher, I made all kinds of change, all the time,” Shea said. “But when I had my principal come to me and say, ‘This is how you’re going to do something,’ that’s when I got angry.”
The new superintendent said a school district cannot operate out of fear and that goes for students and staff alike.
“People don’t resist change,” Shea said. “They resist being changed.”
One of the keys to finding success in a school district, he said, is defining exactly what the term “success” means. Success may not be reaching a certain test score or percentage of graduates at four-year schools, he said, but rather putting students in a position to do what they want after graduation.
Or, as Shea said in a rhetorical query, “Did we help you? Are you in a position to do what you want to do with your life?”
The goal, he said, is to get a definition of what success looks like from the school community and set goals from there.
That’s one of the reasons Shea’s staff has set up coffee “chats” with community leaders, to gauge what their concerns and goals are for Sequim schools.
He worked as an elementary school principal for the Mead (1998-2004) and Central Valley (2004-2007) school districts before taking the executive director of human services position in Mead. The Sequim school board hired Shea in late March.
Shea also has coached several youth sports teams, including teams with his daughter, McKenzie, and son, Keegan.
With both children graduated — McKenzie is a freshman at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, Keegan is a junior at Whitworth University in Spokane — Shea and his wife, Mary, decided they could make a move from their hometown.
Sequim fit the bill, Shea noted, particularly for someone with his interests: golfing, fishing, hunting and “things that get me outside.”
“(This is) a high quality place to live, raise kids and send kids to school,” he said.
It seems Sequim’s newest schools superintendent is determined to keep it that way.
“If we’ve done our job right, (then) students are safe, treated with respect and are learning,” Shea said. “If so, parents aren’t going to send their children somewhere else.”