Being a high school principal means being prepared for anything.
Their days are filled with serendipitous moments that happen only when thousands of teenagers are put under the same roof with responsible adults who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“It happens every day,” said Marybeth Smith, the principal at Lewis and Clark. “You see something that cracks you up, something charming or sweet or heartbreaking.”
They also can be inspiring.
At Ferris, Principal Ken Schutz has spent the past seven years trying not to be awestruck by the outpouring of community support.
Julie Lee, who has guided Shadle Park for the past five years, said she’s overcome every day by the passion of her teachers and staff.
Lori Wyborney marvels at people in the Rogers community “who see themselves differently than they did before.”
At North Central, Steve Fisk begins most mornings in the cafeteria, watching the sun rise and telling himself how lucky he’s been.
And now, suddenly, all five are leaving. Officially, that will happen at the end of the month, but most of the tears will be shed this weekend during graduations at Riverfront Park.
By the end of the month, Fisk will be the new superintendent in Colville.
Smith and Wyborney are taking on new, broader administrative jobs with the aim of making difference for children at all grade levels.
Schutz and Lee will enjoy retirements and give their successors the opportunity to be amazed.
‘It feels really good to leave a job you feel somewhat sad about leaving.’ – Ken Schutz, Ferris
When Schutz arrived in Spokane in the summer of 2014, he wasn’t sure Ferris could match the community feel he’d left behind in the small town of Odessa.
Schutz was wrong. From the teachers to the unique organization known as Ham on Regal, the Ferris community exceeded his expectations.
“It’s second to none, and you can’t replace it, though some have tried,” said Schutz, referring to the parent-run show that has raised more than $2 million for activities and programs at Ferris.
That has made Schutz’s job easier and helped raise the bar for more students, even as rising poverty rates clashed with always-high expectations at the South Hill school.
And yet they’ve managed to accomplish both. Schutz said he’s proud of the staff for “closing the gap for students in poverty, to scoop kids up and hopefully send them on the right pathway to success.”
“But we’ve also managed to keep our standards high, for kids to succeed,” Schutz said. “It really is about the people and the relationships you build.”
Schutz admits to some mixed emotions about retirement. “Since kindergarten, I’ve never not been in a school building in September,” he said.
But Schutz will take some warm memories into a retirement filled with golf, fishing and travel.
‘With kids, you always get more back than what you put in.’ – Marybeth Smith, Lewis and Clark
For Smith, the halls of Lewis and Clark have been a touchstone since she began teaching there in 1984.
After seven years at LC, she worked in the downtown office, then back at the high school before working as assistant principal at North Central.
Back at LC since 2016, she takes pride in maintaining the school’s reputation for academic excellence.
“That’s something the teachers at LC have always taken pride in,” Smith said while recognizing “that the content isn’t nearly as critical as the relationships.”
That’s been especially true during the pandemic, said Smith, who through her staff has attempted to impart a message to each student: “That I’m an adult who loves you and cares about you.”
Despite the disruption of the pandemic, “kids are going to continue to learn,” Smith said.
“Children are going to learn best when they feel safe, whether they’re 14 years or 18.”
In her next job, Smith will be able to make a difference for an even larger age group. Beginning on July 1, she will return to the downtown office at Spokane Public Schools and work to support curriculum leaders throughout the district.
‘I wanted to leave the school better than I found it.’ – Julie Lee, Shadle Park
Five years ago, Lee was looking for a “capstone” to a career that had taken her up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to San Francisco and the small town of Cathlamet in southwest Washington.
Seeking a place that was just right, Lee “took a chance” and moved to Spokane.
At Shadle Park, she found a special bond with “the traditions and the loyalties among the Shadle neighborhood as well as our alumni,” plus a large number of staff who graduated from the school.
“I’ve been to eight different high schools, and by far this one has the strongest culture I’ve ever experienced,” Lee said.
That culture helped Lee and her staff realize some important goals. Graduation rates increased; so did participation in Advanced Placement testing.
The school continues to produce high-level programs in choral, instrumental music and theater, while pushing to increase the number of clubs and activities.
“We’ve had teachers step up and take up those interests,” Lee said. “We wanted to increase that sense of belonging for all students.”
For all that, Lee is ready for a change of pace. Noting that this will be the fifth venue in as many years for graduation, she would like something more predictable.
“I have been in schools my entire life, so this is going to be really new for me, and I haven’t yet decided what that will be,” Lee said. “I don’t have any definite plans, and that’s on purpose, but I won’t be living by the bell.”
‘There’s always been a lot of pride in Hillyard, but now it’s a different kind of pride.’ – Lori Wyborney, Rogers
There are changes that can be measured and others that can be felt.
Wyborney has seen both at Rogers, where not that long ago graduation rates were barely above 50%; this year, it will top 90%.
“That’s just ridiculous, isn’t it?” Wyborney said.
She also cites data that shows Rogers on par with the rest of the district in many key measures.
But the sense of optimism goes deeper than the numbers. At Rogers since 2007, Wyborney said she’s at the point now that she can’t help but run into Rogers alumni everywhere in town.
“And you see how far they’ve come,” said Wyborney, who feels the same optimism about the surrounding community, and how that community views the role of the school.
“The Hillyard-Rogers community, they see themselves differently now.”
Though she’s in a position to retire, Wyborney said she was “intrigued” by an offer from Supertintendent Adam Swinyard to oversee the entire Rogers attendance area.
“It’s pretty hard to leave,” Wyborney said. “The kids are definitely a major attraction for me, and my staff has been with me quite a while.
“I’m really proud of the work we’ve done.”
The new position, however, would give Wyborney, a former middle school teacher, a chance to examine how students are transitioning between grade levels and the obstacles they encounter.
She also hopes to make a difference in Spokane’s low kindergarten-readiness rate by improving availability of quality child care.
“Public schools, they have to be where that is delivered,” Wyborney said.
‘My classroom is in the hallway, the cafeteria and the gym, and I love that.’ – Steve Fisk, North Central
Last week, Fisk held an end-of-the meeting with his English teachers. It confirmed what Fisk had sensed: Two months after kids had returned to in-person learning, so had their sense of normalcy.
“We felt like they had turned the corner,” Fisk said. “And while it’s not a full day in school, it’s a way to continue building relationships.
“I’m going to miss the day-to-day problem-solving with staff. I don’t look at problems as unsolvable.”
Fisk has presided over remarkable progress since taking over as principal in 2013, following five years as assistant principal.
Since then, the school opened its acclaimed Institute of Science and Technology, which later established an immersion program for middle-schoolers.
Last year, North Central posted a district-best 95% graduation rate.
“I’ve been lucky,” said Fisk, who gave most of the credit to NC’s teachers and staff.
Fisk also worked to change the school’s culture, most recently leading the drive to change the school’s Indians mascot.
“I’m going to miss the family-oriented culture, which continues to grow in different ways,” Fisk said.
Named last month to lead the Colville School District, Fisk will be leading a school community that’s not much larger than NC’s.
“But sometimes you can feel when it’s a perfect fit,” Fisk said.