LA CONNER — In his first three weeks on the job, La Conner School District Superintendent Will Nelson has set the bar high, especially for himself.
“One of my personal goals is to know the name of every kid in the district,” Nelson said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Nelson, whose first day on the job was July 1, comes to the about 600-student district from the Arlington School District, where he served as the director of equity and student success.
“All the work I’ve done in equity in my previous role has helped me see where we have some opportunity,” he said.
For Nelson, the drive for equity isn’t just an academic endeavor, it’s a personal one as well.
A member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana, Nelson — who is likely the district’s first Native American superintendent — knows firsthand some of the struggles facing Native American students when it comes to education.
“As a result of that, equity is really important to me,” he said. “I really wanted to work in a district with a large Native community.”
About 34% of the district’s students are Native American, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
As in other parts of the country, Nelson said he sees a disparity in the achievement of the district’s Native students versus its non-Native students, he said.
“It’s discouraging and disheartening,” he said of the achievement gap.
The good news, he said, is that the district’s teachers and staff also find the disparity discouraging, and Nelson is ready to find ways for him, the teachers and staff to bridge that gap, he said.
With his background and experience, he said he hopes to bring new ways of teaching to the district, ones that blend in the traditional “Native ways” that are culturally relevant to those students.
A goal of his, he said, is to work on what he calls “universal design,” a framework for classroom learning that recognizes not all students learn the same way, and helping teachers identify multiple methods to reach students and get them to engage.
Nelson is the district’s fifth superintendent in the past seven years. He replaces interim Superintendent Rich Stewart, who was hired to lead the district during the 2020-2021 school year.
He comes to a district has faced conflict and turnover, particularly at its highest levels — on its board and in its superintendent and principal positions.
Another change for the upcoming school year is the departure of middle school and high school Principal Kathy Herrera, who held the role during the 2020-2021 school year.
Herrera is being replaced by former Concrete High School Principal Christine Tripp, a La Conner graduate who had recently been hired to serve as the assistant principal for the middle and high schools.
“For a small district like La Conner, that’s a lot of change,” Nelson said.
He hopes to maintain the stability started by Stewart over the past year, and to heal some of the tension that has surrounded the district over the past several years.
That includes helping to strengthen the district’s longtime partnership with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. The relationship was affected by the 2013 Great Wolf Lodge decision.
“I’m really hoping to heal some of the tension,” Nelson said.
He pointed to his work in Arlington with the neighboring Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians as an example of the partnership he hopes to build in La Conner.
His relationship with the Stillaguamish was such that he was given a parting gift from the tribe. It was an item that was brought to them decades ago by a Blackfeet man.
“Those are the types of relationships that are really important to me, that I want to create here,” he said. “We’re moving forward. Everybody is ready for us to move forward.”