Mary Ann Ranells said she wanted to begin her first full year in the West Ada School District with a party.
So she gathered hundreds of staff, parents and patrons Wednesday morning, to hear some country music on karaoke, a few piano selections and some motivational remarks.
“This district is self-renewing,” Ranells said.
In Idaho’s largest school district, Monday will be a day of renewal, as classes open for the 2016-17. And the new school year comes after a 12-month period punctuated by political tumult. Longtime district Superintendent Linda Clark resigned in October. Two trustees resigned earlier this year, and voters recalled two more trustees in May.
Ranells made no mention of this recent history Wednesday. Instead, she adhered to the positive messaging that has marked her first seven months at the helm.
She recognized two of West Ada’s newly appointed trustees, Philip Neuhoff and Steve Smylie, and hailed her working relationship with the board.
She discussed her process of touring all 52 of the district’s schools and talking to hundreds of district staffers — in an attempt to identify what she termed “the West Ada way.”
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She identified several recurring themes from her visits: a love for kids and a love for the job, professionalism, expertise, the courage to set high expectations, persistence and a willingness to embrace change.
Much of Wednesday’s program was set aside for a speech on education — and its role in a changing society.
Author and consultant Jamie Vollmer urged faculty to use their power, the power of truth, to engage the community in a discussion about the value of public education. Vollmer interspersed his remarks with some moments of self-deprecation, describing a time when he was a harsh critic who believed public schools can and should be run like a business. He criticized education reform groups that have made teachers into a scapegoat, and said the nation’s obsession with standardized tests could set back education for a generation.
Despite what he called an erosion of public trust, Vollmer said public schools are a cornerstone that built the nation.
“There is no alternative better than public education, if you are comparing apples to apples,” he said.
While 2015-16 was rife with high-profile political infighting, Ranells urged staffers to keep their focus on the district’s 37,000 students. Ranells urged her employees to fight, “passionately but gracefully,” for better learning opportunities for all students.
“We will make it easier for them to succeed than it is to fail,” she said.