North Idaho principal reflects on his career

SANDPOINT — Idaho’s 2013 Principal of the Year did not have a traditional rise to his position.

Kim Keaton
Kim Keaton

Sandpoint Middle School Principal Kim Keaton smiles as he reflects on his journey — losing a full-ride academic scholarship at Idaho State University, managing the local mall, smoke jumping in Alaska and time as a traveling salesman all came before his education career.

Now he’s ready to take his next journey. Keaton, 60, is retiring at the end of the school year.

A walk down memory lane

Keaton was 36 when he graduated from the University of Idaho. He started teaching in the Lakeland School District before becoming a principal in Sandpoint.

“I never made it in here as a student,” Keaton said as he looked around his cramped Sandpoint office filled with T-shirts, photos of eighth graders and the control panel for the PA system and school bells.

As a student, Keaton barely escaped a trip to what would eventually be his office. Back in 1973 – the year he graduated high school — Sandpoint High School occupied what is now Sandpoint Middle School.

“I was kind of a knucklehead in school — I found the principal’s office more than a few times,” he said.

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Now, his best memories of the building are when he’s sees his students achieve.

Sandpoint Middle School has 500 students and enrollment has stayed steady during the past few years even after a charter school opened two blocks away.

“We are on board with Common Core and the way technology is making education richer,” he said. “ It is amazing to see how students are linking learning to what is going on in the world. Their writing is much more rich than I have seen in my career.”

While mandatory testing takes time, Keaton sees the results as a road map. He said they give 2,750 tests to 500 kids every year.

“Some have said this forces educators to teach to the test but in reality we teach to the curriculum,” he said. “If the curriculum and tests are close, that is great. It is our hope that the standards we teach relate to the tests.”

Keaton continues to be amazed by students.

“More kids are graduating, fewer are getting pregnant, they have respect, are entrepreneurial and have a bigger depth in the world than ever before,” he said. “The future is in good hands with this generation.”

Keaton is concerned about Idaho’s ability to attract and keep good educators. Not so long ago, the school district would receive 40 to 50 applicants for every opening and now the number hovers around 10, he said. The district is lucky to receive two or three applicants for special education teachers.

He likes the direction lawmakers took this session raising the starting salaries for teachers as well as mapping out raises over the next five years.

School finances are also a concern to Keaton. Even though local voters passed a levy with 70 percent, the district is still at least $1 million short and staff cuts are taking place.

“We can’t ask voters for what we want, we have to ask for what we need,” he said.

Keaton and his wife, Julie, who is also an educator, aren’t going to slow down in retirement. They have already mapped out trips to Ireland and England this summer and a visit to Italy in the fall. A trip to Norway is expected in the near future.

“I am looking forward to finally graduating from middle school,” he said.