Both Aberdeen and Hoquiam school districts appointed new superintendents last spring. They are now, in the midst of their first semester, starting to settle into the community and beginning to employ a number of changes to improve local schools. From basic building projects to post-grad life and the immigrant community, the two new administrators bring many ideas from prior work as superintendents and are already big fans of the Grays Harbor area.
The Daily World spoke with both Alicia Henderson and Mike Villarreal from Aberdeen and Hoquiam school districts, repectively, to discuss their backgrounds and what they hope to accomplish.
Alicia Henderson, Aberdeen’s new schools cheif, comes fresh off five years as a superintendent in Santa Rosa Calif., and while she applied for the job partially because she envied the Northwest scenery and vibe, she also saw it as a great fit where she could utilize experience designing special education programs and revamping school technology. Henderson said she came in knowing there were challenges, but has quickly become an enthusiastic supporter of the area, Aberdeen schools and the opportunities they provides.
“Yes, the community struggles in some ways, but there’s an amazing vitality and ernest effort on all fronts,” said Henderson, who replaced previous superintendent Tom Opstad in July. “It’s clear to me that the community is working to redefine itself and revitalize it with opportunities for the people here. It’s a real honor to contribute to that effort however I can.”
Henderson’s background work as a special education practitioner and a speech pathologist made her stand out from other applicants last spring, and made Henderson think she could excel at addressing the issues she heard about from teachers, such as student behavior and improving technology usage.
“Those were a couple of the areas I heard wanted improvement and sounded like a good match for my experience in Santa Rosa,” she said.
Henderson added that not only students with recognizable disabilities, but the unique characteristics and behaviors of all students should be taken into account.
“It’s not only an understanding of the special needs for students with identified disabilities — all students have differences — so it’s understanding how we meet the needs of all students given there are so many differences.”
And in today’s world, where new technology is quickly becoming inseparable from learning, Henderson is working to ensure all students have access to their own devices, such as laptops and smart pads that they can take home from the school to use for homework and learning at home. Part of her work, she said, is to design curriculums that use high-tech devices to increase learning and don’t simply give students something to play with.
“It needs to be seamless and an added value to learning, not just technology for technology’s sake,” she said. “You need a plan for how it adds to the learning. And we’re in an era when we need to know how to use technology.”
In the much smaller Hoquiam School District, Villarreal was chosen after spending 10 years as an assistant superintendent in Othello and 12 as a principal and teacher in Warden. After growing up in that area, he said it was a big change coming out here and he made sure his family liked the area first.
“It’s the first time I really picked up the family and moved somewhere,” said Villarreal. “Before applying to the area, I brought the family out to get a feel for it. My family fell in love with it here, and I like to hunt, fish, camp — all the stuff they do out here.”
During his time in Othello, Villarreal said the school district expanded by 1,000 students. One of his goals in Hoquiam, he said, is to foster better trust between teachers and administrators so they can be honest about the problems facing them and figure out how to push students more academically.
“I’m trying to establish a good level of trust among all teachers and administrators. By doing that, when we discuss student achievement, it’s got to be based on trust in relationships, because the work is tough,” he said. “It requires us to push further and deeper to be better.”
Villarreal said he also makes sure to frequently visit students homes when he’s not in the office to get a better feel for what students need and how they’re doing during the year, after which he’s been able to detect what some of the recurring issues are.
“There’s a big need for social and emotional help for families,” he said. “Not all kids are coming in with those needs met, and that’s unique. So we’re trying to address that.”
For both Villarreal and Henderson, taking into account of the needs of Latino students is another big focus. Villarreal, whose parents are Mexican-American and Peruvian, said he’s making a concerted effort to connect with the area’s Latino community and ensure they are aware of the resources available for anyone interested in college and loftier goals after high school.
“I sat on a panel at Grays Harbor College about getting closer to Latino students, a growing number in here and Aberdeen. Dreams are real, how do you get them? Going to college is a real thing if you want to go, and there are resources out there,” he said. “Some of our Latino students, especially with the political climate, there’s stress and worries about their immigration status. It’s a very real thing, and it’s those things that allow me to go out and advocate for students.”
Henderson added that she has also been working to meet with the Spanish-speaking community and is looking to figure out how Aberdeen could improve its programs for those still learning English.
“A big thing this year is shifting how we provide English-language development to those students so it’s more integrated with the general education program and not a separated one, so students aren’t taken out of the normal classroom,” said Henderson, who also speaks Spanish.
The two are continuing to monitor how to offer the best post-school life for students, as they are aware college isn’t in the future for some of its graduates. For Villarreal, this means networking and making better connections with Grays Harbor College and elsewhere to collaborate and see how he can better prepare students for those places.
“I’ve been reaching out to the college, different organizations, to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got kids here, what can we do to give them the right skills to enter the workforce immediately?’” he said. “Not all students are college-bound, and if they’re not, then what can we give them in regards to skills to work in Grays Harbor, the lumber industry, what trades do we need to give them? So I hope we can maintain these dialogues.”
In Aberdeen High School, Henderson was impressed with the hands-on work programs they offered to prepare students for real jobs, like a student-run credit union and a fully functional radio station at 106.5 FM.
Apart from these broad plans for the future, the superintendent position still has day-t0-day tasks. Villarreal will soon be getting community feedback on its tax levy, as the district may need more revenue to support all of its programs, and he said some schools need repairs such as the plumbing in Lincoln Elementary and the wiring in some buildings that still can’t support Wi-fi. Henderson has made some significant updates to the language arts program in Aberdeen’s elementary schools, which she said were overdue.
“It was old and needed an update with a new curriculum,” she said. “Whenever there’s a new adoption, you have to support teachers with implementing it. You don’t just buy textbooks and say, ‘Hey, teach it.’”
As both Villarreal and Henderson move near the halfway point of their first school year and continue to address areas in need of fixing. Both are passionate about the area now and said they are honored to be working for the community.
“It’s a very supportive community. These folks take a lot of pride in who they are and where they come from — there’s a lot of traditions,” said Villarreal.