FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – When people in Spokane were asked what they wanted to see in the next superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, they came up with a laundry list of attributes, but one consistently rose to the top: innovation.
Shelley Redinger, the woman hired to lead Washington’s second-largest district starting July 1, has a history of changing the culture and operation of the districts she has headed, even though she’s only 44.
In the Spotsylvania County School District in Virginia, for example, she worked with the local parks department and sponsors to add lacrosse to the athletic department’s offerings because the district didn’t have enough money to do so on its own.
She improved communication among administrators by asking department heads and principals to attend school board meetings, so that district staff meetings could be used for problem-solving and discussion rather than for a rehash of board business, said Carol Flenard, the Spotsylvania district’s executive director of instruction.“Attending board meetings also helps (administrators) better understand what’s happening” in terms of budget goals or board queries, Redinger said.
Spotsylvania’s district was top-heavy when Redinger arrived, so she eliminated some administrative positions through attrition. She froze administrative pay, in part to give teachers a raise after four years without an increase. She also required education coordinators to teach some classes. The combined changes resulted in a $1 million reallocation to classrooms.
In the Oregon Trail School District, where Redinger was superintendent for four years before joining the Spotsylvania district, she is credited with helping win voter approval for a bond; obtaining a federal grant for an elementary-level International Baccalaureate charter school featuring Mandarin Chinese instruction; increasing Advanced Placement offerings at the high school level; expanding career and technical education offerings; and implementing an all-day kindergarten.
“The school district had been trying for more than 10 years to get a bond for the high school,” said Norm Trost, school board chairman in the Oregon Trail district, which faced significant financial challenges. “She formed a citizen committee to determine: 1. Do we need to do it? 2. Should we remodel or build a new one?”
Including the community’s voices on how to approach the bond apparently made a difference; the new high school opens in the fall and Redinger plans to be there for the celebration.
“She was innovative here,” Trost said. “She was not afraid to bring in new things or try new ideas. And she got a tremendous amount from her staff. Having seen the school district as bad as it was, the community took to her immediately.”
A quick rise to the top
Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent-to-be started her career in education at 21, teaching sixth- and seventh-graders in Kennewick.
Redinger was an assistant principal by age 26, a principal at 28 and an executive director at 33, and by 39 she was the superintendent of the Oregon Trail district. She became superintendent of the 24,000-student Spotsylvania district last year.
At 44, Redinger will become Spokane Public Schools’ 16th superintendent and the youngest on record.
“She’s young, but she’s got some experience,” said Craig Hawkins, executive director of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. “Shelley has the intellect that has made her one of the voices people listened to. She was respected and listened to about changes in education and really highly thought of by her peers.”
Breaking her four-year contract and leaving the Spotsylvania County School District after a year was attractive only because of what Redinger calls a “perfect storm” of developments. Spokane Public Schools was on the Eastern Washington native’s career wish list; her mother is battling cancer in Spokane; and Redinger believes she is what community leaders, district employees and residents said they wanted in the next superintendent – innovator, good communicator, accessible, visible, collaborator, experienced educator, motivator and good listener.
“When I read what Spokane was looking for, it was a good fit,” she said.
Her present and former colleagues say Spokane will not regret it.
“Shelley is very much a team player,” said Tim Belanger, business manager of the Oregon Trail School District. “She surrounds herself with talented people. She recognizes not one person can do it all on their own. But she clearly understands the buck stops with her, and she’s accountable to the board. By virtue of not being everything to everybody, it frees her up to do what superintendents need to do: Be visible.”
Linda Wieland, Spotsylvania County School District board chairwoman, said: “The fact she’s in schools almost daily is unique compared to other administration … yet she doesn’t neglect her administrative work. She encompasses it all.”
‘Making people feel heard’
During a recent staff meeting in Virginia, Redinger listened carefully, then delegated tasks to department heads, sometimes pairing them up.
“I do a lot of facilitation – people need that,” said Redinger, who is often described as personable and friendly. “I also give a lot of autonomy, but I have high expectations.”
Wieland adds, “She’s intuitive about what people’s skill sets are and matches them with the right position or task.”
Redinger’s style is diplomatic. She doesn’t believe in calling people out on mistakes in front of their colleagues. And while she expects department heads to be the experts, Redinger has researched how each area works as well as its budget.
That knowledge helps when she’s addressing issues in those departments. “As superintendent, you can’t just be focused on teaching and learning,” Redinger said.
But change isn’t just about leadership style. Parents and teachers say Redinger’s presence in the schools and in the community made a difference.
“She made an effort from day one to visit all the schools and really listen to people,” said Tracey Gerstbrein, a para-educator in Spotsylvania County School District.
“We’ve been struggling budgetwise, and she couldn’t do a lot,” Gerstbrein said, but Redinger included ideas from teachers and staff in her budget plan.
“Just making people feel heard made a difference,” Gerstbrein said, and went a long way toward improving teacher morale.
Kari Griffiths, a parent in the district, said Redinger’s visibility has helped “parents feel good about what’s happening in the schools.”
Wieland said Redinger told the Spotsylvania school board, “ ‘You have to be in touch with classrooms if you are going to lead.’ ” Wieland said, “Some administrators would be scared to do that.”
Gary Skinner, a former school board member and Spotsylvania County supervisor (equivalent to a county commissioner), said, “Shelley was a breath of fresh air. She brought a new, open feeling.”
Redinger has begun her work as superintendent in each district where she has worked by meeting as many community stakeholders as possible.
In visits to Spokane, she has met with members of Greater Spokane Incorporated, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and Mayor David Condon. On Thursday and Friday, Redinger was in back-to-back meetings with district administrators and anyone else she could squeeze into the schedule.
Before the school year starts in September, Redinger plans to join a Rotary club, meet with as many school employees as possible and expand her connections with community leaders.
Police and fire chiefs are at the top of her list. “You don’t want to get to know each other in a crisis,” Redinger said.
Spokane Public Schools already has collaborative relationships with many other organizations here. Redinger said she’ll aspire to expand that network.
“She wants to make sure when we say ‘our schools,’ that’s how the whole county feels,” said Rene Daniels, the Spotsylvania County School District’s director of public relations.
How does Redinger do that?
“You don’t get collaboration by staying in your office,” she said.
Short stint created some controversy
Perhaps the only controversy that has beset Redinger in her administrative career was her decision to leave Spotsylvania after just a year.
She’d signed a four-year contract with the district, which had also paid about $20,000 to move her to Virginia from the West Coast. Some district residents thought Redinger should have to pay back those moving expenses, but the board decided against it.
“We let her out of her contract out of compassion” due to her mother’s worsening illness, said Wieland, the chairwoman of the school board. “She’s paying back the district in her own way.”
Redinger and her husband, Darin, supplied a $1,000 scholarship for a high school student to pursue a degree in engineering. Darin Redinger is an engineer.
Wieland said the superintendent also is leaving behind a check for $5,000 to fund similar scholarships at the district’s five high schools.
Substituting in the classroom
Redinger stocks her car with pencils and a changing collection of books, and she regularly visits schools in her district to read to students.
Earlier this month, she met with a group of middle school students to inquire what qualities they wanted in their next school principal.
“It’s important to talk to the kids and give them a voice,” Redinger said. Also, “they will give you information you wouldn’t otherwise know.”
The middle school group told her they wanted someone who is loose, who can have fun, but who knows how to discipline. At the end of the meeting, Redinger agreed to let a couple of students help when she interviewed finalists for the principal’s job.
Redinger schedules lunches every week with different student groups in the schools, her colleagues said.
“I like to get to know the kids. They really like to know I’m their principal’s boss. That impresses them,” Redinger said. “By going into the schools, I get a true perception. … I can see it. I could sit in my office and think it’s good, but I wouldn’t get a sense.”
The best way to get to know high school kids is by attending their athletic events, she said. Redinger, her husband and 9-year-old son, Logan, regularly attend extracurricular activities.
Logan, who will be in fourth grade, will attend one of Spokane Public Schools’ elementary schools.
Redinger also likes to substitute in classes occasionally, something she’s done in Oregon and in Virginia.
In February, she spent the day in a Spotsylvania fourth-grade class. One of the exercises she used that day was to tell the kids to “freeze like a Fudgsicle.” She promised the students she’d bring them the frozen treats when temperatures warmed up.
She made good on that promise earlier this month and was welcomed with hugs by employees and swarmed by students.
“When you say something to kids, you have to follow up,” she said. “That really has an impact