By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The newly announced principal of K-5 STEM at Boren, the new “option” elementary that Seattle Public Schools intends to open in Delridge this fall, won’t be at tonight’s informational meeting.
But we learned more about Dr. Shannon McKinney‘s background, hopes, and plans, by interviewing her hours after the district announced she had been hired.
While she hasn’t led a STEM-focused school, she feels this is the culmination of much of the work she has done in her career, including a decade as a teacher of mathematics – “Not a math teacher,” she corrects. “I taught students mathematics.”
More from our conversation, ahead:
Dr. McKinney says she has been trying since last year to get a job in Seattle, having “applied for some other positions there” since last June, she said, adding that she “had some interviews, was a finalist, wasn’t the perfect fit, but the district administration appreciated the leadership abilities that came out in interviews and knew they wanted me” eventually to be part of the team. She says she “saw this opportunity and inquired,” and then was contacted by Dr. Catherine Thompson, a West Seattleite who is assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
As noted in the letter circulated to media and families, announcing her appointment, Dr. McKinney has been principal of Hohokam Middle School in Tucson for the past two-plus years, hired there for work described as “turnaround.” It is the first school where she has worked as a principal, according to news coverage from 2009, when she started the job; that same article says she was a middle-school assistant principal in the Amphitheater School District, also in the Tucson area, before that (and includes a lot of other personal background that didn’t emerge during our brief interview).
Though she has not supervised a specifically STEM-focused school, she says that focus has been “always something I have tried to keep in mind,” even before the acronym came into wide use. She says her teaching style included trying to “embed the concepts in the real world,” to which, she says, “science and math lend themselves very nicely.”
She herself has a personal story of fascination with, and immersion in, science and math, starting with her parents’ suggestion that, as a middle-schooler, she study mechanical drawing – her father was an engineer at what was then Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon): “He gave me his drafting kid, compasses, lead – I was fascinated by the engineering of those pieces … I was the only girl in that class, and my teacher said I was the best mechanical-drawing student she ever had.” She aspired to be an architect, and started in the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, but her life moved in another direction for a while and her first degree ended up being a two-year drafting degree at Cochise College.
She also spent time as a stay-home parent, McKinney says, but “I realized I was one of those people who needed to be socially interactive and had something more to offer the world.” Her own mother had gone back to school at that point to become a teacher, and told her daughter, “You’ve been excellent in math your whole career, you should be a math teacher …” and the rest was, well, history. (Other members of her family work in education as well, she says, including her two sisters.)
What other STEM-relevant experience does she have? we asked.
“As an administrator, as an assistant principal, I was always responsible for overseeing science and math,” she says. She also lists experience supervising career and technical education at the high-school level, “so I know very well the impact of tech, science, and math on 21st-century learning. There’s no way a student .. will be a contributing member of society unless they have understanding of science and math. I’m not saying they all need to be engineers – because of the way tech has taken over our world and has flattened it, so to speak, we have to teach kids to collaborate, be creative, communicate, problem-solve, use thinking skills, make themselves a happier person in understanding the world around them.” And she says again, math “is the way to make sense of the world … science provides us the natural laws that allow things to happen … To be able to integrate those – how exciting is that?”
As for the specifics of creating and opening a STEM school, she says she will consult with other principals who have done so successfully, who can share what worked for them and how they would have “improved on the process.” Collaboration is a major theme for her. Asked how she plans to hire teachers, she says she will not make the decision alone – she will first hire a leadership team who will work with her on that.
Hiring is something McKinney says she had to do a lot of at Hohokam Middle School. “I was hired to turn it around – it had a bad reputation, unsafe, low student achievement … it lost sixty percent of the staff before I even came on board.” As for making staff choices, “You have to be firm in what you want. Not subtle. Not just finding a warm body. I made sure I wasn’t going to do that” when she started at Hohokam. And she expressed frustration at some of the hiring rules in the Tucson Unified School District: “If someone is on a RIF [layoff] list, you have to accept a teacher regardless of what they’re certified for. You get people who don’t know the school, just want a job, don’t care about kids, a miserable match … I hope we can select teachers who want to be there, who have the STEM bend to them, so we can build a successful team.”
Many of the questions we asked her were suggested by WSB’ers in the comment thread on our original story about the district’s announcement. Since she’s been leading a middle school, they wondered about her elementary experience. She mentions her time as director of a K-12 “21st Century Community Learning Center,” saying she “worked mostly with primary kids.”
And then there is the big question for many concerned parents: What math curriculum will the new school follow – the oft-criticized Everyday Math curriculum officially adopted by the district, or perhaps Singapore Math, for which Schmitz Park Elementary obtained a waiver, with widely celebrated outstanding results?
Asked that question, she first talks about Arizona’s state standards, and “moving toward common core standards that need to become (the) curriculum,” whatever is used to deliver it. Given a thumbnail summary of the Seattle curriculum controversy, McKinney says she has not yet reviewed the Seattle district’s “laws and rules” covering this, but notes that she was the district math coordinator for two years during her time in the Amphitheater district. She acknowledges “pros and cons” regarding Everyday Math, particularly “problems with it in terms of teaching students multiplication … it has its drawbacks when students are asked to apply multiplication to more advanced problems, so there’s a lot of controversy.”
And as for Singapore Math, “I have heard awesome things. If indeed the school has (some) freedom, with input … I hope to form a leadership team to make those decisions together, that maybe we would be able to adopt another kind of instructional model, that would be something we would look into.”
As the Tuesday announcement said, she will start work in Seattle in early April. She acknowledges she has a lot to learn about the district, and this area, between now and then, and certainly the community will want to learn more about her. But bottom line, she said, as our relatively short interview window ended: “I look forward to making a mark on Seattle Public Schools in a very positive way.”
(Again, tonight’s informational meeting about K-5 STEM at Boren is at 7 pm at Schmitz Park Elementary, and will be led by the district’s executive director of schools, Aurora Lora.)