John Parker has taken over the reins in the Central Valley School District, replacing former superintendent Ben Small after he spent 14 years leading one of the largest districts in Spokane County.
Parker officially started work on July 1, but he began attending some school board meetings and doing some tasks before that. School Board President Cindy McMullen said Parker was one of four candidates they interviewed for the position and that he outshone the rest.
“I think it’s his enthusiasm and focus on finding the best opportunities for our students,” she said.
She also liked that Parker has experience teaching and being a school administrator in two foreign countries: China and Columbia. His background gives him a different view of education, McMullen said.
“He was just so positive and upbeat and talked about possibilities,” she said. “We were really impressed.”
Parker moved around a lot as a young child before his family settled in Sumner, Washington, when he was in the fifth grade.
“I moved three times in the third grade,” he said. “I’ve grown up in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.”
He earned his teaching degree at Washington State University and began teaching science and math in Puyallup in 1988. He taught junior high and high school there until he and his wife took positions with the Shanghai Community International School in China.
Parker said he and his wife were lukewarm on the idea of teaching in China at first, then decided to go to the interview and give it a shot.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “We were so excited about something different. We like adventure.”
They thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about a foreign culture and learn a different language. He started out as an Advanced Placement chemistry teacher, then became dean of students and the high school principal. His wife, who was a special education teacher, became the school’s admissions director and then a principal.
In 2006, the couple went back to Puyallup after spending three years in China. Parker was an instructional coach for three years, then was a summer school principal before taking a central office job. In 2019, he turned his gaze abroad again.
“After we came back from China, we really wanted to have that international experience again,” he said.
Their two youngest children were entering middle school, and Parker said the couple wanted them to have the experience of living in a foreign country. Parker worked as the director of innovation at the Colegio Nueva Granada, an international school in Bogota, Columbia, for three years. Parker’s new position at Central Valley marks his return to the United States.
During the interview process, each superintendent candidate met with students, staff and members of the community.
“His interview with the high school students was outstanding,” McMullen said. “He connected with the kids and had a real conversation with them, not just answering questions. We could see how he would engage with everybody.”
Parker said that during the interview process he was impressed by the love of the teachers in the district and the sense of pride. But he acknowledged that there is work to be done to improve, particularly because some students fell behind in their learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our community is looking for a return of pre-COVID, pre-pandemic standards and level of achievement,” Parker said. “I would say that we’ve become smarter, so even better than that.”
Students became isolated and lost access to the structured social settings in the classroom while doing virtual learning. Parker said he wants to make sure that all students and parents feel a sense of belonging and safety in the district.
As part of that, Parker said he wants to make sure to engage parents.
“That is why I started working before my official first day on the job,” he said. “Our board had tremendous interest in ensuring we were connected to our community.”
To that end, the district has launched a community engagement initiative to get feedback from parents and the public. A community survey was recently completed, and the results will be presented to the board soon. Parker, along with board members and other district officials, will attend community events to gather feedback as well. A booth will be set up at the Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake farmer’s markets throughout the summer.
The district will also host six community conversations from August to November . The locations have not yet been set, but the first two sessions are scheduled for Aug. 4 and 18. A full schedule of community engagement opportunities is available at cvsd.org/apps/pages/communityconversations.
Parker said that once all the feedback has been gathered, it will be considered as the district moves forward with a new strategic plan.
The information is critical to making well-informed decisions, Parker said. The goal of providing different ways to provide input is to make sure everyone feels heard and listened to, Parker said.
“We wanted to provide ample opportunities that fit with working parents’ schedules,” he said.
Parker said he believes that well-informed change is necessary, but he’s also a firm believer in not trying to fix something that works.
“I’m really into empowering others; empowering students and empowering their ability to take control of their learning,” he said. “In order to empower others, you have to listen and know where they’re coming from.”
Listening to others is a skill that Parker has learned well.
“Building relationships are at the core of everything,” he said. “There’s not enough hours in the day for me because I like to get to know people.”