Tom Venable fielded questions from the public after Wednesday’s forum. Photo by Marcy Stamper
BY MARCY STAMPER
Tom Venable was selected to be the next superintendent of the Methow Valley School District by a unanimous school board Friday night (May 31). Feedback from staff, students, parents and community members also consistently favored Venable, said Methow Valley School Board chair Dana Stromberger.
The choice of Venable, currently deputy superintendent of the Bellingham School District, came after three full days of interviews, campus visits and even writing exercises with the three finalists for the position. After Friday’s public forum, the board deliberated for about an hour in executive session before reconvening in a brief public meeting shortly after 9 p.m. to take a vote.
“I’m thrilled to be joining what appears to be an exceptionally talented and dedicated staff and community working closely together to support all students,” said Venable in an interview this week. He said that partnership had become clear to him after seeing students, staff and community engaged in a variety of learning opportunities throughout the Methow.
Venable arrived at the interviews organized, prepared and ready to learn, said Stromberger. While here, he was already asking questions and gathering information about the district, and will do a lot more listening so he can implement the district’s strategic plan, she said.
“He is so excited to be [coming] here. In every group he interacted with, there was such a synergy,” said Stromberger. Faculty and staff were so interested after meeting with Venable that they stayed late to finish the discussion, said Stromberger. “He really has a gift – a wonderful energy and working rapport,” she said.
Venable said his first step will be to create an entry plan. “That’s a fancy way of describing how a superintendent enters a new position,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for the school district and community as a whole to pause and reflect on successes and on what needs attention, and decide where to go from here.”
As the newest member of the team, Venable said he would be a careful observer and would collect and analyze information in a systematic, collaborative way.
“Rather than hitting the ground running and implementing many changes, I’ll exercise patience,” said Venable, who welcomed others to participate and offer solutions they believe could be effective.
Venable has been the deputy superintendent in Bellingham for the past three years, where he helped lead an information-gathering process similar to what he will undertake in the Methow.
Venable shared some of his personal story with the attendees at the public forum on Wednesday (May 29). While he had always liked school, Venable said he had struggled academically until an eighth-grade teacher encouraged him. “I hope to be able to model that pathway for others,” he said.
He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He has a degree in economics, a master’s in education, and certificates in school administration.
An All-American collegiate soccer player, Venable was the assistant coach for a women’s soccer team at a university in Washington, D.C. While there, he tutored student athletes and realized he enjoyed working with kids. He enrolled in a teacher-training program that incorporated on-the-job experience teaching special education at the elementary level in inner-city Baltimore – and lived in his van while doing it.
Venable has since taught elementary school in Bellingham and was principal at two elementary schools in that district.
As deputy superintendent, he helped obtain funding to institute full-day kindergarten in all 14 elementary schools in Bellingham and to subsidize pre-K classes in eight schools. “The area that resonates for me – for biggest impact – is an investment in early-childhood education, to level the playing field and eliminate the achievement gap,” he said. Venable also pointed to the importance of early-childhood education in students’ social and emotional development.
Administrators in Bellingham also strived to eliminate other potential barriers, such as costly school supplies and course fees. Venable said his goal is to ensure “equitable and equal access to a rigorous and intellectually demanding education.”
The other two finalists for the job each spent a day at interviews in the Methow. At his public forum, Gary Keeler, principal of an elementary school in Bothell, emphasized the moral compass he applies to leadership and the continuity and practice fundamental to learning. He described his love of nature and support for environmental education and the long-term commitment he would make to the Methow.
Bob Cooper, director of visual and performing arts in the South Kitsap District, described his passion for public education and the power of learning, and his conviction that there are treasures inside all children. The school and community, working together, can find the keys to unlock each one, he said.
Stromberger said the board was pleased to have had such well-qualified candidates. More than 40 parents and community members attended each public forum and had a chance to talk individually with each candidate. Stromberger said the directors had read and considered all the comments from staff, students and community.
Venable has been visiting the Methow for more than a decade. His wife, Annie, is a former elementary school teacher. They have two children, Ingrid, 4, and Elliot, who turns 2 in July.
Venable will start in the district July 1, pending contract negotiations, which should be finalized June 12, said Stromberger. He replaces Mark Wenzel, who will become superintendent of the Anacortes School District on the same date.