The Sequim District Superintendent of Schools does his homework and isn’t shy about assigning it either.
I had the opportunity to interview Kelly Shea as he prepares to leave Sequim to become the superintendent of the East Valley School District near Spokane and walked out with a book by an author he often quotes: “The Global Achievement Gap,” by Tony Wagner.
It was the source from which Shea quoted two years ago when I attended one of his “Coffee Chats” with the community. It was the disturbing facts that compelled me to return to Shea before he left and learn his thoughts about the issues and the hopes facing public education today.
“The current school system has never worked for all kids. It works really well for about 30-40 percent of our children and for about 25 percent it doesn’t work at all,” quoted Shea leaving the implication that the remaining 35-45 percent just muddled along. I was astonished — how can this be OK?
Needless to say, Shea has endlessly researched, thought, connected the dots and talked about the failure of and hopes for schools. The results seem to my ears to be a studied understanding of what’s happened and what needs to happen in education.
I will share his wisdom with you as much as I can within the limits of my own understanding and space. It is too important not to be said.
What do today’s kids need?
“Every kid needs to continue learning beyond high school,” says Shea. According to Shea, we continue to teach like we did 50 years ago if not 100 years ago. He points out that kids can no longer count on having a lifetime job in industries such as manufacturing, have 2.5 children and retire with a pension. We have entered an age of accelerated change that requires adaptability and resilience which require continuous learning.
The classrooms of my day and even Shea’s day worked then, maybe, but not now; yet change is slow even though experts in the field know change is needed.
“We are always trying to unlock the mystery,” says Shea. “We all want kids to succeed.” He lists some of the more difficult locks. Chief among them is the “politicization” of public education which shouldn’t surprise any of us who hear sound bites like “costs too much … too many administrators … not enough money spent on education … government … not involved or too involved parents … core curriculum … unions.”
According to Shea, everything education is driven by state and national policies; look no further than teachers, despite their professional instincts, being driven by test outcomes or the paralysis of our own state in funding basic education.
Testing and politics
Testing looms large in the daily life of schools. The environment of mandated testing and measuring outcomes drives the system to teach to the test. “We start testing children in March to measure what they are supposed to learn by June,” says Shea and further points out that precious class time is spent on testing.
Then there is our own state Legislature that’s locked by differing views on how to pay to meet the state’s obligation to fund basic education. The Legislature is so locked that our state was found in contempt for their failure to fund kids’ education due to the inaction of the last session.
Meanwhile schools struggle to make up the shortfall and implement the innovation in education that is so needed for children to make it as adults in today’s world.
‘Shea-speak’ on what schools can do?
Engagement — engagement of students and engagement of the community — is Shea’s answer to getting the work of preparing children for lifelong learning done. He starts by telling me the example of the teacher that has the students set their goals in learning in a specific area and gives the students the ability to monitor his/her own progress against the goals of the project. He describes how students become motivators of their own achievement.
Shea strongly believes in the importance of public schools engaging the community on behalf of kids. He believes in the power of the community to establish great schools as long as the community has the will. He says the greatest problem a school can face is public apathy.
Shea will spend any length of time with an individual or groups, as I have learned, in order to tap their sense of ownership and commitment in schools and kids.
He admits to being disappointed when the last levy failed. “I thought we reached out, listened and responded to what the community told us.”
Shea easily and resiliently returns to his positive view of the future. Everything he says is laced with his love of children and learning and a keen sense of responsibility, the likely reasons he will never give up. He supports the concept of public schools and envisions a time when charter schools and many more innovative options are available to meet the needs of all students through public education.
He points to the success of the Olympic Peninsula Academy, a combination of home and in-school learning referred to as a “home/school partnership” as one example of such collaboration.
Shea is a voice for children, a voice for education and a voice for innovation and modernization of our public education systems. The Sequim community and its kids will miss this man.
Goodbye and good luck, Mr. Kids.
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.