Michelle Whitney’s heart has always been in Pasco.
The Pasco School District administrator was born there and spent her earliest years in the city. Even after her family moved to Kennewick, where she graduated from high school in the early 1990s, she often found herself back on the other side of the Columbia River.
“I knew the Pasco High fight song but not my own,” she recalled in an interview with the Herald.
Starting this summer, Whitney will begin the transition that will ultimately put her at the helm of the district serving the city she loves — she will spend next school year as a deputy under Superintendent Saundra Hill before taking over upon Hill’s retirement.
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There’s a lot to get done before Whitney sits behind the superintendent’s desk. She will inherit the district’s challenges, such as overcrowded schools and a significant number of students not fluent in English and living in poverty.
But she said she’s up to the task and ready to deliver on a promise she made to herself to serve Pasco.
“This actually is a calling to me,” she said.
Whitney’s family has deep ties in Pasco. Her grandfather, Jack Stredwick, was a police officer who once served as interim chief of police. Whitney did not know him well, as he died when she was still young, but he was a large figure in her family and his legacy was her inspiration to pursue public service, she said.
Education was important in her family, but neither of her parents were college graduates. Her father worked in construction before becoming an oil company executive. Her mother was a hairdresser who ended up with her own business. Whitney described her upbringing as solidly working class.
Whitney, who is married, spent two years at Columbia Basin College before attending Washington State University in Pullman for her bachelor’s degree in education. She has since earned a master’s degree and a principal’s credential from WSU Tri-Cities, where she is pursuing her superintendent’s credential.
She started work as a kindergarten teacher but went on to become a school counselor. She began ascending the administrative ladder, serving a stint as McLoughlin Middle School’s principal before heading to the central district office, where she is executive director of teaching and learning.
“I wish I could tell you I had this grand career plan, but in reality I’ve had some great professional mentors,” she said. “I’ve had people see things in me I didn’t know were there.”
She credits her value in relationships, be they with students, parents or teachers, as one of the biggest contributions to her success as an administrator.
The conversations those relationships produced led to a common ground to work from with adults and strong bonds with her students. When news of her appointment was announced, a now 23-year-old former student posted a photo to Facebook of the book she made when in Whitney’s second kindergarten class.
“All these years later, she still has it, dug it out and posted it,” Whitney said. “I was overwhelmed by it. I cried.”
At the same time, she acknowledged that using that skill will require her to get out into the community more to meet with people, a challenge for any administrator who spends much of their time in meetings and working on policy.
“There’s a broad piece of Pasco I haven’t interacted with,” Whitney said.
Whitney will be in charge of the district’s curriculum and professional development office during the 2015-16 year as she prepares to become superintendent.
The district has been revising curriculum in response to new standards in math and language arts, known as the Common Core State Standards, and other subjects as well as the new College- and Career-Ready Graduation Requirements. It will be up to Whitney to put it all into practice in the schools.
“We’re at a point where we need to connect some dots across the system,” she said.
A lot of transition and change is coming to the district next year. Two new grade schools with a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, curriculum are opening and sixth-graders will be in elementary schools after years in middle schools. The district will likely seek a renewed maintenance and operations levy in February and is also waiting for a recommendation on a possible bond from its facilities task force.
While Hill will handle the initial work of those projects, Whitney will have to manage it all in the coming years.
Hill, in a statement, said she would have confidence in whomever the board appointed. But Whitney’s position in the community means Hill can focus on helping her successor extend her connections across the district and better understand educational issues at the regional, state and federal levels.
Hill stressed that the next year will truly be a transition — not a training year for Whitney.
“We will also give her opportunities to learn about all the district-level functions from the superintendent's perspective so she will be absolutely briefed and ready to assume the full reins as soon as she steps into the position,” Hill said. “I believe Michelle will truly be able to take the district to the next level.”
District parents and teachers, who were critical of what they said was a brief superintendent search with little information provided to the public, have lingering concerns about transparency in the district office.
Similar transparency issues were raised when the district revised school attendance boundaries in west Pasco. Most parents, however, said they were ultimately pleased with the board’s decision to make the yet-to-open Barbara McClintock STEM Elementary School a K-6 school rather than a K-2 center as district staff had suggested.
Whitney heard loud and clear during the boundary meetings that the public wants dialogue on district issues, she said. That’s important to her, and she’s made efforts to reach out to people at all stages of her career in Pasco.
“The best ideas I ever got as a building principal were from my families,” she said, recalling coffee meetings she set up. “I want to hear from people about what’s going great and what needs more work.”
The details of Whitney’s division of work next year, as well as what her new contract and compensation will be, haven’t been determined.
All she knows is that everything in her life has led to this moment and she’s ready to take on her new responsibility.
“That’s what I’ve always wanted, to be important in the lives of people in this community,” she said.