More than a few eyebrows were raised last weekend when Adam Swinyard was named superintendent of the largest school district in Eastern Washington.
Four days after Shelley Redinger’s resignation on June 23, the Spokane Public Schools board appointed Swinyard – only 37 years old and lacking top-flight administrative experience – not to an interim role, but to a permanent position with a two-year contract.
Judged from a distance and based on Spokane’s history of filling the position after a prolonged national search, the decision seemed a bit too safe, a deer-in-the-headlights reaction to COVID-19 and the uncertainties of the times.
However, the closer they got to the problem, the more sense it made to the five people elected to make that difficult decision.
And urgent though it was, their decision matches the moment, because in a few months only one thing will matter: How quickly and effectively Spokane can get back to the urgent business of educating its 31,000 students?
And who better to hit the ground running, the board reasoned, than Swinyard, who has been sprinting since before the coronavirus descended on Spokane four months ago?
The board’s decision isn’t as knee-jerk as it has appeared to some. He’s relatively young, but Swinyard has been the district’s associate superintendent for teaching and learning for the past 3 ½ years.
Before that, the Deer Park native was a teacher at two different schools on the West Side before returning to Spokane and taking on that most difficult of jobs: middle school principal.
Since then, he’s been the face of the district in curriculum-related issues, his profile raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even before that, Swinyard has been noticed.
“The way my mind works, I’m always thinking about what will happen down the road,” board President Jerrall Haynes said last week.
Only 31 and a rising star himself, Haynes is inclined to value qualifications over age.
“For the last 4½ years I’ve been watching and listening to the people, and with that thought process of ‘What does it look like if we lose Dr. Redinger?’” Haynes said.
Swinyard also has been noticed by other districts, a factor that played into the board’s decision.
As the district’s associate superintendent for teaching and learning, Swinyard has been the district’s point man during the pandemic.
At times he cut a higher profile than even Redinger, overseeing the nuts-and-bolts transition to distance learning and meeting with teachers, administrators and the board
Then he went home and joined other parents on the front lines of distance learning.
“There were good days and bad days,” said Swinyard, referring to his and his wife Ashley’s efforts to educate their three school-age children, Bailey, Brandon and Blake.
That was true for almost everyone, as Spokane and other districts struggled with distance-learning platforms, equity issues and other problems.
“I think that some of the really valuable parts of being an education leader are understanding your own challenges and what it’s like to be a parent,” Swinyard said.
An honor student and basketball star at Deer Park High School, Swinyard took a common path for many high school grads: one that led away from Spokane.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in secondary education and played basketball at Northwest University, a private Christian college in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.
After graduating in 2005, he was an elementary specialist at McAuliffe Elementary in the Lake Washington School District, then a social studies and English teacher at Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish County.
At the same time, Swinyard was an assistant basketball coach at Northwest and later at Seattle Pacific University, where he earned a doctorate in educational leadership and administration.
By then Swinyard was back in Eastern Washington – “My heart is in Spokane,” he said – and was an administrator at three different middle schools. An assistant at Garry from 2009-11 and Cheney from 2011-13, Swinyard held the top spot at Sacajawea from 2013-16.
After six months as Spokane’s director of secondary education, Swinyard moved into the associate superintendent’s position the following year.
“I’ve been a big fan of Adam’s since I arrived in Spokane,” said Redinger, who promoted him in January 2017. “Leaving SPS in Adam’s hands makes my transition much easier.”
By then, Haynes had been on the board for about a year, and he took notice of Swinyard’s passion as much as his qualifications.
“The first thing about Adam is his drive to do whatever is right for kids, in every conversation and everything I’ve ever seen Adam do,” Haynes said.
“I admire how he always leads with what’s best for students,” Haynes said.
Last year, Swinyard dealt with vexing issues at both ends of the education spectrum.
The district had been handed critical outside evaluations in two key areas, special education and its gifted and talented program.
With equal passion, Swinyard led the drive to centralize the oversight of the Tessera and Odyssey programs at the Libby Center and revamped the special education program.
With the district facing a budget crisis in the spring of 2019, Swinyard acknowledged the barriers to changing its special education model, especially at its Eagle Peak facility.
However, Swinyard told the board during a meeting, “We’ve heard that the community is not feeling supportive of Eagle Peak.”
“Too often, kids have been told that ‘If you don’t shape up you’re going to Eagle Peak,’ ” Swinyard said at that same meeting.
“Never again,” he said.
A year later, suspensions and expulsions for students in intervention programs are down significantly.
“He’s a humble leader who listens closely to everyone,” Haynes said. “I see how he is able to navigate a difficult situation and bring everyone along with him.”
Those abilities will get a big test this fall.
“We don’t know exactly what school is going to look like,” Swinyard said. “We know that it’s going to be a significant challenge, but it’s only the first day of fourth grade once in a kid’s life, and we’re committed to make it the best day we can.”
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