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Frohnmayer brings experience, insight to School Board

Janet Frohnmayer is the newest member of the Mercer Island School Board. And with years of experience on the PTA council, Parent Education Committee and Mel Levine Planning Committee, which promotes the academic model of pediatrician and child education specialist Mel Levine, among other leadership roles, she is ready for the challenge.

On Nov. 29, Frohnmayer will be sworn into School Board Position 5, alongside incumbents Pat Braman and Lisa Strauch Eggers during the School Board’s regular meeting. Current board president Leslie Ferrell will say good-bye to her fellow members, wishing Frohnmayer — and the whole team — all the best.

“I think Janet will be a great addition to the board,” Ferrell said. “She has had a lot of experience working with different organizations within the district’s system and she will be a great asset for the community.”

On top of her strong commitment to education, Frohnmayer also has experience in the professional world and wisdom as a mother. The Island resident, who holds an M.B.A. in business from Dartmouth, works as a consultant at Bain and Company, a global management consulting firm. She and her husband, David, have lived on Mercer Island with their two children for 13 years.

When did you decide that you wanted to join the School Board? What were your reasons?

I decided that I wanted to be a part of the School Board last spring. What really motivated me was thinking about the importance of the board to the whole community, realizing that they really set the tone. Given our new governance model [which former superintendent Cyndy Simms introduced in 2003], they are responsible for the district’s vision and hiring and ensuring the success of a new superintendent. It just struck me that those were all such important roles. I realized that I wanted somebody in the role that was a visionary leader, was able to work collaboratively and positively and who could help capture the potential here. I just felt like I could do those things.

You mention the School Board’s new governance policy. Have you seen a positive change with this new method?

Cyndy [Simms] worked with the board to look at a variety of governance models. It’s really important in a system like this for people to have clear roles. What the governance model does is clarifies the roles for the board and administrators. It creates very systematic opportunities for the board to interact with various constituents. Without this governance model, boards tend to be focused more on issues rather than vision. This model helps the board define the “what,” whereas the administrators and district define the “how.” Otherwise, it’s really easy just to get into the “how.” It’s simply human nature. The governance model brings discipline to the whole process and, hopefully, elevates what the board is bringing to the community.

I think there has been a change. This board, over the past five years, has spent a lot of time defining the ends, which is basically — What kind of experience do we as a school district hope to provide for our students? Where do we hope they will end up as a result of spending 12 years in the Mercer Island School District? Without this kind of structure, it’s hard to find the time and focus to even have those kinds of conversations. There are lots of community members coming to you and you can spend all your time on them and never get to the really big issues. Given that the board is the body charged with this, you want to have a structure that allows you to get there.

How do you think your experience on the PTA, Parent Education Committee and other groups has helped prepare you for this job?

I think what’s helped me the most is that, over the last four years, I’ve worked closely with all different groups. I’ve worked very closely with teachers — probably with 75 to 80 teachers through the Mel Levine process — and really seen them at work. I’ve worked with all the administrators. I’ve worked with lots of parents and have been really honored to be a part of the process. So what I’m bringing [to the School Board] are a lot of real relationships that have developed through working together over time. With that, I hope, comes trust and the ability to really collaborate going forward.

Somebody asked me the other day, “Do we have to start treating you differently?” And I said, “No. That’s the whole point.” The relationships, I think, are going to be incredibly important.

The other thing is this sense of what is possible — how much we can really make happen. And it sometimes happens in a fairly unexpected and surprising way.

For example, with the Mel Levine work, when we got together as a committee with parents and teachers from every school. All we had was this possible date that Mel Levine might be coming. I remember saying to that group: “I don’t know where we’re going to get to or how we’re going to get there but will you come on this journey?” And that’s effectively what it was. It was a journey together to make something happen. And the result blew us away.

I really like working with people. I tend to see the beauty in people and love capturing that potential. I love that process of creating possibilities. I find that very energizing. I’ve done it enough that I’m able to ride through the moments when you’re just not sure how this will turn out. It’s a lot of fun.

How has raising children opened your eyes to important education issues?

Hugely. That’s why it’s great to have kids. You get to learn about whole new worlds. My son probably has been one of my greatest teachers in that my husband and I were sort of, to use a Mel Levine term, the “wired for school kids.” So that’s all I’d really known. My son is just an intensely passionate, creative kid and is on his own agenda. It really opened my eyes to the fact that there are all kinds of minds and that some minds don’t thrive in the same way at school. It motivated me to become interested in Mel Levine’s work and to think about how that framework and way of thinking about kids could benefit all kids on Mercer Island. It’s made me much more open minded about intelligence and ability and what qualities are valuable. It has also totally helped me see that there is more than one way to get there.

And then with my daughter, what I’ve experienced through her is the wondrous community that is Mercer Island. I feel like she has developed — from being a very young child to a middle schooler — surrounded by families, children and teachers who have created such a great community to grow up in.

What goals do you want to bring to the School Board?

A few things interest me; not so much as issues, but as opportunities to think about with the Board. One is this idea of how do you continue to make Mercer Island a place where all kids can thrive and become a success? I feel like there has been tremendous effort already. At every school, there has been work in this area. Another thing I think a lot about is, how do you make Mercer Island a great place for staff to work? The third, and this is sort of all encompassing, is how do we make sure that we’re preparing kids for their future and not our past? This is important for lots of reasons. One is the obvious one that we all want our kids to have opportunity and success in their future. If what they need to achieve that is changing, we want to make sure we’re providing those opportunities.

One of the things the board can do here is think about how to bring the community into this conversation. It has already started with the Really Big Idea Committee and has broadened with Dan Pink’s talk [”A Whole New Mind: Why right brainers will rule the future” at CCMV on Nov. 2].

It’s really the next opportunity. There are districts that are so bogged down in [the basic state requirements] that they couldn’t even dream of thinking about these things. We are actually in a position of such strength that we can think ahead. People look to districts like ours to be leaders.

Choosing a superintendent will be one of the School Board’s biggest responsibilities. What sort of approach do you foresee?

The challenge is that I’ve thought about this only individually. The best thinking on this decision will actually come collectively. I think it’s fabulous that we have the caliber of people like Gary Plano [interim superintendent] and Kathy Morrison [interim associate superintendent] stepping into these positions. They’re going to add so much value this year, even in an interim role.

On the other hand, I’ve participated in a number of selection processes, for example when we selected Mary Jo Budzius to be the principal of Islander Middle School, so I do think there’s some value in this community to choosing the best candidate. It can give people the vote of confidence that is really important to have in this community. So I think this is what we will be weighing.

I know you very artistic, and enjoy making collages. What are some of your other interests?

I think I’m sort of a serially passionate person, and so I was doing art intensively for a number of years and then that got eclipsed by Mel Levine some three years ago. So I continue to think I’ll be getting back to doing art. And then I’m a huge reader. I love non-fiction and I’m forever saying to people, “You’ve got to read this book. It will change your life.” For a while I had a blog called “Book Worm” where I summarized non-fiction books and had a list of subscribers across the country. And of course I love spending time with my family. We live in a really wonderful neighborhood that is very connected.

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