Departing Simms looks back

Superintendent Cyndy Simms has seen a lot change in four years. When she arrived on the Island in 2003, moving from Steamboat Springs, Colo., the school district was taut with stress and emotion. It had been a trying few years: three superintendents had come and gone, tension between the community and the School Board was growing and parent complaints about the district were becoming vociferous. Then Simms came aboard with a conflict-resolution workshop, a long-term school improvement plan and a promising smile. Finally, the district could exhale.

Indeed, Simms’ four-year tenure as superintendent has tested her character. The decisions she made were some of the district’s most difficult and the conflicts she faced weren’t always pretty. When she took the helm, there was a divided School Board, an unflattering book about teaching on the Island (written by a teacher) and controversy over a proposed advisory program (Bridges). Later there was a kidnapping, a gun scare at the middle school, two lawsuits and now indignation over PEAK.

Then there was the other side of the job; riding the bus to school with elementary students, team-building sessions with the School Board, chatting with teachers at Thursday-night soccer games.

Overall, Simms says it has been a good experience. And her colleagues agree. “The Mercer Island School District is a different place now, thanks to Simms,” said soon-to-be interim superintendent Gary Plano. “A better one.”

But now, Simms is moving on. The superintendent will begin overseeing the Walnut Valley Unified School District in Southern California on Oct. 1. The suburban district of 15,000 students and 56 languages is no Mercer Island. Yet Simms says she’s ready for the challenge. As for the Island, it’s a community she won’t forget.

Q: What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment as MISD superintendent?

I think it was refocusing our work on our students. [When I arrived] there was conflict in the community, conflict at the School Board level and conflict among our staff. People seemed to have one point of view or another about different A.P. classes or Bridges or students and stress. We need to recognize our students’ social and emotional needs and the caliber of academic programs that we can provide for them, and this is not at the expense of one point of view or the other, but really both. So our community and school district met and decided that they wanted to get past all that conflict. They really saw that it was time to work together on behalf of the students. I would say one of my most important contributions was bringing people together to say, “Let’s focus on the students and move forward.”

Q: During your first year as superintendent, you helped broker a conflict-resolution agreement between the community, the district and the Board. How is the relationship today?

The conflict-resolution work was [begun as] a three-day gathering of key community leaders, School Board members, administrators, teachers and high school students. We worked with a man by the name of Bob Chadwick, a very skilled facilitator who has worked with communities across the country. He helped the different groups hear each other’s points of view. And unless you can really hear each other’s point of view, you can’t understand the feelings, emotion and passion for those points of view. You can’t begin reconciliation of those points of view if you can’t understand them. And so that’s what those three days were really about.

Out of that, those leaders of the Board, the PTA, faculty and students said, “We want to create mutual-respect and shared-responsibility commitments.” Those commitments then shaped — and continue to shape — the way that we work today. We administrators still review those rules and ask, “Are we abiding by these? How are we treating each other?” And I believe the Mercer Island Education Association still does this, and the PTA still does this. I believe the high school students review these commitments annually as well.

However, there’s an ebb and flow in how communities and organizations work. Eventually, there may come a time when a conflict will arise and people will say, “These mutual-respect and shared-responsibility commitments aren’t working for us anymore. What do we need that’s different?” But hopefully the rules we have now will be useful for awhile longer.

Q: You were hired, in part, to bring corporate governance to the School Board. How has this developed?

One of the biggest things we needed at the time [in 2003] was a clear system of governance so that we could better understand the roll of the Board and staff members — who makes what decisions. So the Board took about six months to study a variety of governance systems. They invited people to come from other districts such as Lake Washington and Issaquah, as well as representatives from the Washington State School Directors’ Association to talk about the governance systems other school boards use. They went online and ultimately selected the Carver Model of Policy Governance, and then they chose the Aspen Group to help them with training. The Aspen group met with the Mercer Island Education Association, with teachers and with the School Board, and together they began to shift our old processes — which had been unclear — to this Carver model of governance.

Every six months, the Board brings these trainers back, and together they refine their governance skills. It is a system that requires re-commitment from Board and staff. The philosophy is clear — the roll of the Board and staff members — but it sometimes gets muddied from topic to topic. So there is a need to clarify and go back to the principals of this model.

I know that when a new Board member or superintendent comes, they will discuss how to continue this model. And it will be interesting for me to see the direction they take this.

Q: How is MISD different now than it was in 2003?

I think we are much more stable. By this I mean that we have a very strong administrative team in place that is very committed to its work. We also have a more experienced School Board, which is very important. We have two Board members beginning their second terms, and hopefully they will continue on for eight years or longer. That stability, that continuity, is very important to our school district.

We had a lot of turnover when I first came, which made it difficult for staff and parents to feel confident that they knew the direction the district was headed. Today I see us, as a district, confidently moving forward. Even with my departure, we won’t skip a beat. We will continue right on with Gary Plano as interim and with the same Board, plus one new member who has been actively involved with the district.

Also, I think that the Mercer Island School District’s reputation today is different, at least among educators and communities in the Puget Sound area. For awhile, we had a lot of turmoil. But this isn’t our reputation any longer. We’ve always done great things for kids, but for awhile Mercer Island was regarded skeptically as a place that might not be good for educators to come because there was a lot of conflict. And now I think people are saying, “Gosh, I’d love to be part of the Mercer Island School District.”

Q: Do you still ride the bus to school with kids?

Yes, I still ride the bus. And Gary [Plano] has told our bus drivers that he’s planning to ride the bus too.

I have loved that. When I first came, because I wanted to know all the bus drivers and all the routes, I would ride every Monday unless I was out of town for a conference. After that I would ride a different bus twice a month, and this has stayed my goal.

And of course, I visited schools every Monday. That’s just a sacred time. Nobody ever got scheduled into my Monday time. I would ride the bus, get off the bus and visit the students at school. I’d stay through lunch and talk with the teachers and just listen to what was going on.

When I visited the elementary schools, I would always say — to the younger kids — that the superintendent’s job is to make sure that every student gets the best education that they can get at our schools.

Q: And finally, what will you miss most about the Island?

[Thanks to] our school district’s size, with 4,000 students, I know more and more students. I know them because I visit the classrooms and ride the buses, because I’ve had a daughter at the high school for four years and because I live on the Island. And they recognize me.

Now, as I go to a district of 15,000 students, that will be my challenge — to get to know our students there. And the same goes for the teachers. Here, I know almost every teacher personally. This will also be a challenge when I go to Walnut Valley.

That is one of the best things about my job here on the Island — knowing our kids and knowing their families.

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