In some ways, Aryn Ziehnert brings the best of both worlds to her new position on the Spokane Public Schools board of directors.
With a doctoral degree in psychology, Ziehnert is a lecturer at Eastern Washington University.
“But I also consider myself a good listener,” Ziehnert said.
On top of that, the Spokane native brings a passion for the mental health of children, an issue magnified by the strain imposed by distance learning and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It takes a very special person to step up in times like this,” board President Jerrall Haynes said.
Actually, that was part of the appeal of the vacancy, said Ziehnert, who was selected on Sept. 9 and will be sworn in on Wednesday.
“I know what we’re facing, and I know how difficult these times are,” she said.
Besides the pandemic and its disruption to the education system, Spokane and other districts face an uncertain fiscal situation and strains on their support of children’s mental health.
Ziehnert’s background should help her cope with the challenges.
Raised in the Mead area, she recalls several “fabulous” teachers, but especially Jim Burbo during her fifth- and sixth-grade years at Meadow Ridge Elementary School.
“I appreciated his level of teaching and holding us to a higher standard,” said Ziehnert, who at one point considered a career in teaching.
However, by her sophomore year at Mead High School, Ziehnert had charted a course toward psychology. After graduating in 2008, she went on to Eastern Washington, where professor Russell Kolts “helped me get further along than I ever thought I could,” she said.
After getting her bachelor’s degree from EWU in 2010, Ziehnert earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Montana in 2013 and 2016, respectively.
After one year as an adjunct instructor at Spokane Community College, Ziehnert was named in the summer of 2018 as a full-time member of the psychology department at EWU.
Ziehnert teaches a variety of undergraduate psychology courses, including introduction, statistics, research methods and stress and coping.
However, her passion for the social-emotional health of children stood out.
Chosen over six other finalists, Ziehnert impressed the board with her “thoughtfulness and passion,” Haynes said.
“More than anything, she offers a unique and fresh perspective, from someone who is also from the area, and her mental health background,” Haynes said.
“She showed thoughtfulness, and her references sealed it even more,” Haynes added.
Ziehnert said she embraces the theories of Urie Bronfenbrenner, a Russian-born American theorist in developmental psychology.
Bronfenbrenner posits that child development is much like a series of circles, with the child in the middle.
“In the bull’s-eye is the child,” Ziehnert said. The family and teachers reside in the next circles, and higher systems – such as a school board – are further afield but still critical.
“You need to be interacting with all of these systems,” Ziehnert said.
Ziehnert serves as a research mentor to students involved in the McNair Scholar Program, which works with first-generation, low-income and/or minority students.
She also has volunteered at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital, assisting in providing comfort and entertainment to pediatric patients and their families.
Ziehnert will be the fourth person to hold the position in the past five years.
Paul Schneider won a six-year term in 2015, but resigned two years later.
Brian Newberry was appointed in September 2017 to hold the position until the next regularly scheduled board election, in 2019. Newberry declined to run for re-election and Morrison won the spot last November.
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