AMERICAN FALLS — An antique handbell rests on the bookshelf in Ron Bolinger’s office.
“It’s like the one I used to ring to end recess when I volunteered at an elementary school after I graduated from high school,” Bolinger said. “That would’ve been in the late 60s.”
The bell, long since retired, reminds Bolinger of his bygone days as an elementary teacher in the American Falls School District, far removed from his central office and well before cell phones, state-standardized tests and state-funded kindergarten.
“A lot’s changed since those days,” the bespectacled educator said, reaching for his Diet Coke. “And a lot of it’s been good.”
Bolinger recently announced he’ll be stepping down in June from his 22-year post as superintendent in the American Falls School District.
“I’m 68 years old, and time has caught up with me,” he said.
On Thursday, he looked back on a career spanning almost half a century: his roles at both the state and local levels, his accomplishments, setbacks and the future of one of the most diverse school districts in the state.
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“When I first taught sixth grade here in American Falls in the 70s, I’d get one, maybe two, Hispanic migrant students in my class,” he said. “They’d come for a few months, then they’d be gone.”
Bolinger and other American Falls educators long adapted to the comings and goings of migrant kids — but the landscape has changed. A dizzying influx of migrant families have made American Falls their home over the past decade because of job opportunities beyond seasonal farm work and educational programs for children. Hispanics now make up half of the district’s entire student body.
Challenges have accompanied the growth. Last May, Bolinger spearheaded a $12.5 million bond issue for a new intermediate school to help curb overcrowding at the district’s Hillcrest Elementary. When support for the bond fell just shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass, Bolinger and local board members regrouped, downsized the proposed school by 14,000 square feet and simultaneously slashed the facility’s projected price tag by almost $4 million.
A renewed push to pass the bond in March reflects Bolinger’s long-held belief that K-12 success lies in large part on properly investing in Idaho’s youngest students: “That’s key,” he said.
His preoccupation with early childhood education has stayed with him for decades. As a fledgling teacher with a walrus mustache in the late 1970s, Bolinger helped the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children develop and implement Idaho’s first curriculum for kindergarteners.
More recently, Bolinger worked with American Falls Elementary School principal Tina Fehringer to develop the district’s dual-immersion, all-day kindergarten program for Hispanics. With the help of federal dollars, the program provides split English-Spanish instruction to kids throughout the day.
“He really understands the dynamics of a lot of (Hispanic) families,” said J.J. Saldaña, community resource development specialist for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
In September, Saldaña and other members of his agency visited with Bolinger to assess the district’s accommodations of Hispanic students.
“He knew which parents didn’t have traditional work hours and weren’t around to help their children with homework,” Saldaña said.
Longtime American Falls trustee Susan Fletcher was a member of the local school board that hired Bolinger two decades ago.
“He is truly an educator — from his very soul,” Fletcher said. “Whenever there’s been any question about education, he leads the discussion.”
Other facts about Bolinger
- What do you like to do in your spare time? Play tennis and travel with my wife and family.
- What’s a cherished high point during your time leading the district? When the bond for the new American Falls High School passed in the late 90s, and it was rated a five-star school the year after we built it.
- What’s a memorable low point during your time as superintendent? When we had a school bus pull out in front of an 18-wheeler. Fortunately, none of the kids were hurt, but we did have a bus driver injured. She’s okay now.
- What are some of your most cherished accomplishments in education? I was president of the Idaho Association of School Administrators in 2003-04, Superintendent of the Year that same year, president of the Idaho School Superintendent Association in 2002-03 and I received the Professional Achievement Award from Idaho State University in 2005.
- What’s with all the cuddly little stuffed beavers on shelves throughout your office? That’s our high school mascot.