Richland grad has big dreams for Richland School District

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 16, 2013 

John Steach has a lot of dreams for the Richland School District should he be brought on as superintendent. An elementary dual language program. More technology in classrooms. Installing more sidewalks for students who walk to school.

"It shows how much the community values (students)," he said.

But he also sees challenges for his hometown schools: growing poverty, the threat of student inequity, the need for emphasis on math instruction and getting parents more engaged in their children's education.

The finalist for Richland schools superintendent fielded questions from community leaders and the public during two meetings Tuesday afternoon.

Attendees said they were pleased with Steach's responses but are waiting to see how the other candidates measure up.

"I came in skeptical," said Staci West, a member of Richland Citizens for Good Schools and parent to middle and high school students. "But I liked what I heard."

Steach is superintendent of the Canby School District in Oregon. He arrived at the district of about 5,000 students in 2011 after spending seven years in varying district administrative jobs in Richland. Before that, he served on the Richland School Board.

He was one of the last students to graduate from Columbia High School before it became Richland High School. He studied chemical engineering at Washington State University and worked on the Hanford site after moving back to the Tri-Cities to raise a family. He said his wife convinced him to run for school board and that led him to a career in education.

Steach talked about how Richland has changed since he grew up here but the district should still strive to give all students opportunities to achieve.

"It's easier to say what (achievement) isn't, and what it isn't is closing doors to our students," he said.

On one level that means less importance placed on standardized testing and methods that pigeonhole students, he said. It means emphasizing math and science, but also the arts. The district also needs to help the increasing number of students living in poverty, providing support services and finding ways to get parents involved, he said.

Steach drew comparisons to his work in Canby and his past efforts in Richland to describe how he's prepared to be at the helm in Richland.

He talked about how he worked to resolve parent anger when drawing boundaries for William R. Wiley and White Bluffs elementary schools when they opened. He's sought to bring parents and community members into Canby classrooms by asking them to adopt classrooms to donate their time to, detailed the district's globally-recognized instructional technology initiative and how he's sought student input.

"I've just tried to be available," he said.

Steach acknowledged the challenges he's faced in Oregon, including accusations of racism when he separated a dual-language program from a more traditional program at an elementary school, resulting in some students being moved to another school. School financing also has led to some tough decisions at his current job.

"In a few years I've dismantled more and more programs that people spent a generation building," he said.

He said he knows that some will question his ability to lead a district of Richland's size considering he hasn't worked as a teacher. But he said his background in engineering, combined with his work experience and additional degrees he's earned give him a unique perspective to solving problems.

Steach said he also knows many teachers and administrators in the district, but he still would be aggressive in getting into classrooms in his first year, just as he did when he started in Canby.

"I need to understand how every decision I make affects students," he said.

Shanta Katipamula, 16, a sophomore at Hanford High School, said she was pleased with Steach's science background and his interest in supporting the arts. However, she is concerned about how he's sought input from students in Canby.

"It seems like he doesn't really have anything in mind," she said.

Emily Allen, a Delta High School teacher and mother to students at Delta and Chief Joseph Middle School, said she was impressed with Steach's background but she still wanted to see what the other candidates have to offer.

She added that Steach's background and history in Richland could be strengths, but they could also be problematic in dealing with issues or instituting change.

"It all has the potential to be a two-edged sword," Allen said.

Remaining events with school chief finalists

The public will have the opportunity to meet with the two other finalists for Richland schools superintendent: Joel Aune of the Snoqualmie Valley School District today and Rick Schulte of the Oak Harbor School District on Thursday.

Both candidates will take questions from community leaders at a 4:30 p.m. meeting on the day of their visit at the district's administrative headquarters, 615 Snow Ave.

The public also will be able to ask questions at a forum with each candidate at 7:30 p.m. today and Thursday at the Richland High School library.

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