Newsuperintendent reflects on small town teaching

Published on Thu, Jul 13, 2006 by ack Kintner

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New superintendent reflects on small town teaching

By Jack Kintner

Ron Spanjer, Blaine’s new superintendent of schools, likes small towns.

A native of Cheney, Washington (population 10,000), he worked as a teacher and school administrator in Battle Ground and was assistant superintendent in Port Angeles before coming to Blaine and assuming his duties on July 1.

“Small towns have smaller districts, and that allows for individual attention. The key to effective education is to appreciate the unique needs of every individual student,” Spanjer said.

He added that common expectations – such as a standardized test that everyone must take, or a one size fits all curriculum – present a challenge in “continuing to appreciate the uniqueness” of each student.

Some things are mandated, such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), making it even more important to not lose sight of the individual as state and federal requirements are met, Spanjer said.

Small towns often have communities within the greater community, something that gets obscured in more urban settings. Spanjer illustrated this by saying that “Here it’s not just Blaine. It’s also Birch Bay and Point Roberts, each with unique needs. In addressing them, for example in locating a school in Birch Bay or maintaining a presence in Point Roberts, we need to make sure that we keep the individual student in the forefront of our planning and thinking.”

Spanjer went on to say that his emphasis on the individual comes from knowing that each student will probably have three or four different careers during his or her lifetime, many of which haven’t even been invented yet.

“We can’t prepare for careers we can’t yet imagine,” he said, “but we can prepare the student to meet a variety of challenges and to continue to be enthusiastic about becoming a life-long learner.”

Spanjer said that the basics – reading, writing, math and science – have to be emphasized for a strong foundation. “Then we add something in their own area of interest, and often that means an emphasis on the arts, on visual arts as well as drama and music.

The biggest risk we present in not doing this is that we so standardize our approach that some kids may miss their opportunities, never knowing about something that would have drawn their interest, created a spark,” Spanjer said.

“So we do our best on things like the WASL,” he continued, “but we don’t stop there. In addition to the arts it’s also good to have a strong emphasis on a variety of vocational opportunities, like working with composites for example.”

Spanjer said his biggest challenge, given that he’s got just a week on the job when interviewed, is to help maintain an educational levels within a district that is experiencing rapid growth.

He said that for all this to work requires trust. “I’ve learned one thing well,” he said, “that we depend upon trust, on good trusting relationships with our community and the smaller communities that make it up. My primary assignment for the time being is to get to know people in what looks like to me a diverse community.”

He said that the attendance at the Fourth of July parade and street fair was “testimony to the ownership and pride people here take in the community.

“They were here because they respect what such a celebration represents in terms of what it says about how Blaine feels about itself. We’ve been made to feel welcome, too, and are very happy to be here.”

Spanjer and his wife Shirley moved into a house in Blaine they bought last month. They have three children: Amy, 25, is a registered nurse in Portland, Kimberly, 22, is a kindergarten teacher in Kelso and Andrew, 19, just finished his freshman year at Western Washington University, where Spanjer himself graduated in 1981.