New superintendent’s initial focus on getting to know school district, people

Scott Swanson

Tom Yahraes likes to plan ahead, but he probably wasn’t anticipating a heavy focus on lead levels in school water pipes as he stepped into his new position as superintendent of the Sweet Home School District a month ago.

Thankfully, that is largely behind him. Yahraes said last week that after 160 water tests for lead in the district’s four elementary and its junior high and high school facilities, only three outlets – all in the old buildings of the high school – have been found to exceed the EPA’s accepted levels for lead content in water. Only one of those, a drinking fountain in the metal shop, remained to be resolved following the Oregon Jamboree, he said, and testing will continue, as a precaution.

“I am very proud of the Facilities Department and (Business Manager) Kevin Strong’s leadership in being very actively engaged in testing for lead in the water,” Yahraes said. “We’re ahead of many districts. Doing it at this time of the year will cause the least disruption to school.

“It’s been a hot topic around the state. I don’t want it to be a focus during the school year. I want learning and instruction and a safe environment to be our focus.”

With that out of the way, Yahraes is launching into what he calls “my 100-Day Plan” for Sweet Home schools.

He officially started his job July 1, after moving from Montana to step into the position vacated by Keith Winslow, who retired.

He grew up in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota in an outdoor education camp, where his father taught. He attended high school in Bemidji, Minn., famous as the legendary home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

“I grew up there,” Yahraes said. “I played all sports – fall, winter and spring.”

When not in school, he worked in the woods, doing tree trimming and other forestry-related jobs.

He competed in Nordic (cross-country) skiing in the 1984 Junior Olympics before joining the Army, serving as a border guard in Germany from 1986 to 1989.

After working for a while in Montana, servicing tractors, he completed a bachelor’s degree in English in 1996 at the University of Montana in Missoula, and started a teaching career. He taught in Montana and the Alaskan bush before winding up at Mountain View High School in Bend in 2000, where he was named Teacher of the Year and completed his master’s degree in education administration in 2005. He also served as an administrator in the Redmond School District before moving to Big Sky in 2014.

“I like small towns,” he said last week.

Yahraes said he was attracted to Sweet Home by the “community involvement and support for not only the schools but other activities that go on in town,” such as the Oregon Jamboree.

“The school’s all in, the community’s all in, different organizations are chipping in. It’s truly wonderful.”

There’s also the outdoors.

“It’s absolutely beautiful. I grew up in very rural environments, from Minnesota to Montana to Alaska. I enjoy this very much.”

So what’s this 100-Day Plan?

“The intent of the plan is to honor what I said during interviews,” he said. “I plan to actively engage and listen and learn. What I’d like to learn from different groups of stakeholders is what we do that we want to keep doing, what do we want to start doing and what do we want to stop doing.

“I also want to know where we want to be as a school district three years from now. What do we want students to be talking about, cele-brating? What do we want parents to be saying, talking about? And our staff as a community?

His plan is to “talk to folks in facilities, spend a day with the people how work with our facilities, spend a day with our Transportation Department. I want to get into as many classrooms as I can during this 100-Day mark. I want to meet with teachers and supporting staff, a student team, community organizations and agencies that are involved and partners and support our schools. These are the groups that I want to connect with.”

The plan basically comprises a couple of dozen points that involve a lot of communication with an emphasis on understanding what’s going on in the district now, and identifying and addressing problems before they mushroom.

Transparency is big, he said.

Yahraes said he wants the community to know where he’s heading, what he’s thinking. His aim is to make an “official sort of presentation” after 100 days – “I’m shooting for October or November” – to School Board members, telling them, “OK, here’s what I’ve learned, here’s what I think our action moves on, here’s a plan. Quite frankly, I’m going to ask the School Board to hold me accountable.”

Specifically, Yahraes said, he has three goals.

The first is to continue to improve academic achievement. Yahraes said he believes that quality education starts with a team approach to instruction and the instructional climate.

“It’s my job to provide support for teachers and classified staff – professional development,” he said. That could involve “simplifying and aligning” systems educators are required to use for assessment and adherence to state-level standards.

He’s particularly interested in “empowering internal leadership.”

“I’m really interested in teacher-leaders – finding our leaders within, our highly effective teachers, and celebrating them and encouraging them to share their best practices with others.”

Priority Two for Yahraes is “What are we doing here to encourage a thriving citizen?”

“I want to understand what we’re doing well as a school district in the area that is often traditionally called ‘non-curricular,’ he said. “Ensuring those programs that keep kids connected to schools are continuing to flourish and looking at the participation and encouraging participation in more traditionally non-curricular areas. – athletics, music program, theater programming. I don’t know how we’re doing there.”

His third priority is “Continuously improving culture and climate for our staff, and ensuring that our schools and facilities are welcoming environments for our community and are community learning centers beyond K-through-12.”

By mid-October, Yahraes wants to be putting together a five-year action plan that will address issues that have manifested themselves during the 100-day period. He plans to establish goals for himself as well as for the departments and schools, determine what key issues are for district administrators.

He emphasized that this is not all about changing things.

“This is not my first rodeo. You can get a quick take on something and make a call on it, and then, next thing you know, ‘I should have looked a little deeper because this is why this is here or why they’re doing something this way.’

“As an outsider coming into Sweet Home, I have no intention of coming in and changing the great traditions and values of Sweet Home. I want to help make it thrive even more. When I look around Sweet Home, I see so much opportunity.

“If you look at its natural beauty – its lakes, rivers and parks, it’s special. I’ve lived in a lot of pretty areas and Sweet Home is now one of them.”

Ultimately, all the plans and initiatives will center on one thing – students, he said.

“I am an absolute advocate for any child, to try to give them every chance to be a thriving citizen. Every kid.”