Mercer Island schools have changed a lot in the 10-year tenure of Superintendent Dr. Gary Plano. While addressing issues in a rapidly growing and increasingly diverse region, Plano used his background as an educator to turn every challenge into a teachable moment, he said.
“The aspect of teaching is in my DNA, and it is who I am,” he said in an interview with the Reporter on June 9. “I’m reminded of when I was a child, I would often want to play school, and of course, I would be the teacher.”
Plano was hired as the assistant superintendent in 2005, and promoted in September 2007. He spent his first 20 years in public education in Washington state with the Mukilteo School District beginning in 1980, initially teaching elementary education with special-needs students, and then high school English, before becoming an administrator.
Plano announced in January that he would retire at the end of the school year, and move to Ashland, Oregon. At a celebration on June 15, school and community leaders praised his thoughtful and collaborative nature, steady hand and “visionary and transformational leadership.”
Plano’s many district achievements include establishing a diversity advisory committee, starting the elementary Spanish program, creating the Pathfinder Awards to honor distinguished alumni and successfully passing the bond issue to build Northwood Elementary and expand Islander Middle School and Mercer Island High School. But it was clear from the celebration that people have always been his priority.
“He has sustained our exceptional teaching staff and brought in exceptional administrators… He really knows how to recruit and mentor people,” said School Board Director Adair Dingle. “[And] he visited the schools. He likes kids, he talks to kids… He engages with kids at their level.”
Plano said he is proud of the unique Spanish language program — Mercer Island is the only public school district to offer Spanish in kindergarten — but that it did come with impacts, especially to teachers. Helping teachers with training and self-reflection has also been one of Plano’s priorities, and assistant superintendent Fred Rundle said that Plano’s fingerprints are all over the team he has assembled, from administrators to educators.
“I am most proud, not of the new buildings and not necessarily of the programs, but of the work we’ve done with teachers,” he told the Reporter.
Plano also said that part of his legacy was to help students enter the global community, by helping them connect digitally with people across the lake, and across the world.
It’s part of the district’s Vision 2020: Mercer Island “students will thrive in the cognitive, digital and global world while sustaining their passion and inspiration for learning.”
“As I think about my own experiences in public school, they don’t look like the experiences that I see today,” Plano said. “Children are managing themselves, they’re taking charge of their learning … [That] isn’t what the 20th century was; it was more that the teacher had the responsibility for all of the learning, and children were just passive, sort of empty vessels.”
The challenges of preparing students for a changing world aren’t getting easier. An impasse in the state Legislature regarding school funding is leaving district budgets uncertain, and issues with mobility and affordability will affect district employees in Mercer Island.
But Plano said he has been glad to serve in a community that has always supported its schools. Islanders almost always pass school levies and bonds, whether they have kids or not, Plano said, because they see that education is the key to unlocking a life of success.
“Gary consistently reminds us that our role as public educators is to get outside the box and ahead of the game to give kids the tools and experiences they need for the world ahead, not the world behind,” said former School Board President Janet Frohnmayer.
Diversity, inclusivity and equity are also part of Vision 2020. Mercer Island’s demographics are changing, Plano said. He started a diversity advisory committee three years ago to address issues, starting with race.
“An island is often hard to break into anyway … Being an outsider, even if you identify with the majority population, can be hard,” Plano said. “It can be doubly or triply hard if you don’t look like everyone else.”
Plano, who meets monthly with other superintendents in the Puget Sound Educational Service District, said that Mercer Island’s problems don’t seem to compare with other districts — many with much higher rates of free and reduced lunch and that face issues with immigration and homelessness. But there are risk factors in affluent communities, from drugs and alcohol to the expectation of success and sometimes competitive nature of the community. Students’ social and emotional well-being has become a School Board goal, or “fundamental.”
Plano said that his advice for the new superintendent would be that managing media and information is critical, as the Island community demands and deserves to know what the schools are doing.
The community will remember Plano with a donation of seven benches, which will be placed outside each school on the Island, and the district administration building. Plano said that he was saying so long and farewell, but never good bye, to Mercer Island, which will always have a special place in his heart, and he will carry the lessons learned forward.
“It’s about taking care of each other,” he said. “When I go to Ashland, I want to be a volunteer and a child advocate, and do what I can to help my community be better.”