New Caldwell superintendent to focus on student achievement

CALDWELL — After her first week on the job, new Caldwell district Superintendent Shalene French had mapped out a strategy for success in her first 100 days.

French, who succeeded interim superintendent Jodie Mills on July 1, created a four-page document addressed to parents, patrons, school trustees and families.

She calls it her framework for success.

In the document, French describes Caldwell as “a district on the edge of greatness.” She outlines five focus areas, from nurturing a positive working relationship with the school board to establishing a professional, effective and focused district leadership team.

At the very top of her list, she placed student achievement. “It is evident that a high-quality public education is a priority for all of our children.”

“It’s all about students,” French said. “It really is about making sure that’s truly what we are doing, otherwise you can get off track.”

In order to stay on track, French plans to measure success against traditional achievement benchmarks.

  • Are students reading at grade level by third grade?
  • Are eighth-graders ready for algebra?
  • Are sophomores developing clear, correct writing skills they will need in high school and after graduation?

“I think it’s achievable,” French said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily going to happen overnight, but we may be surprised.”

First-time superintendent

French arrives in Caldwell following nearly 20 years in East Idaho’s Bonneville Joint School District.

After an eye-opening experience substitute teaching, French left the business world and started teaching at Rocky Mountain Middle School. Beginning in 1997, she taught math and coached girls’ basketball and track for nine years.

In the middle of the school year, French was promoted to assistant principal at Rocky Mountain. Shortly thereafter, she was promoted again and became Rocky Mountain’s principal, amassing seven years experience as assistant principal and principal.

After a deputy superintendent retired, French joined the district office in 2012, accepting the position of human resources director.

French served as a top lieutenant to Bonneville Superintendent Chuck Shackett, who was named Idaho Superintendent of the Year in 2014.

Chuck Shackett portrait
Chuck Shackett

Shackett described French as a natural leader, and credited her with overseeing major administration-level initiatives. Shackett said French is an expert at teacher evaluations; in 2015, State Department of Education officials named her to the state’s Professional Evaluation Review Committee.

French was also a driving force within Bonneville’s professional learning communities: small teams of educators that collaborate on everything from professional development and lesson planning to instruction.

“She has really strong leadership skills and she’s not afraid to make very tough decisions, as I’ve seen,” Shackett said. “She sees a problem, and she’s not afraid to address things and she’s not afraid of the naysayers.”

Throughout her career French has also earned several degrees, including:

  • A bachelor’s degree in business from Utah State University.
  • A bachelor’s degree in education from Idaho State University.
  • An education leadership degree from ISU.
  • An education specialist degree with a superintendent’s endorsement from Northwest Nazarene University.
  • A doctorate in education from NNU.

Away from the office, French enjoys traveling — trips to Peru and Italy were particular highlights. A former 4-H participant, she also loves raising and riding horses. She’s particularly fond of exploring East Idaho on horseback with her father, Gene, riding from Roberts to Island Park. One of her favorite activities is to ride into Harriman State Park in the fall and listen to the elk bugling.

And she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, whether it’s building a fence or branding cattle.

A new challenge

While completing her degrees at NNU, French became interested in taking on the next logical challenge in her education career — becoming a superintendent and taking on her own school district.

She considered jobs for a couple years, knowing she loved Idaho and wanted to remain within a short drive of her family in East Idaho.

This year she became more serious, knowing that several top jobs would open in Idaho.

A few of her colleagues advised her against applying for the Caldwell job. They warned her that the district was in turmoil, after the ouster of past Superintendent Tim Rosandick and the recalls of two school board members.

French also knew that Caldwell faced demographic challenges: high levels of poverty, high numbers of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, and go-on rates that lag below the state average.

But that couldn’t stop French from falling in love with the district. Her decision was made, she said, when she toured the district and was inspired by its principals and teachers, who she described as “absolute rock stars.”

“It hasn’t been easy, it has been more challenging in Caldwell,” French said. “My ultimate goal — and I say this knowing it will take time — it to build back that trust within the board, within the school community and the community at large so people will know that I say what I mean and I mean what I say.”

Not afraid of change

Within days of taking the Caldwell job, French had shaken up leadership ranks by bringing in new people from Bonneville. She hired April Burton as chief financial officer and Patricia Wade to take over as human resources director.

Shackett wasn’t the least bit surprised that French wasted no time shaking things up.

“She is kind of a perfectionist,” Shackett said. “She has a vision for how things should be, and she doesn’t stop until she has accomplished it. And, true to form, she’s already made changes.”

That is not to say French is a micromanager or beholden to unrealistic expectations. She said her leadership style is to put the right team in place, empower people and then let them do their jobs unless a problem requires intervention.

Even though Caldwell is French’s first superintendent job, Shackett said he has no doubt that she is ambitious and ready.

“She helped us make Bonneville into the best district,” Shackett said. “And she’s going to put Caldwell back on the map for positive achievement and relationships.”