Olympia schools leader makes rounds

education: On his bike or at open houses, Cvitanich getting to know community

lpemberton@theolympian.comSeptember 5, 2012 

Olympia School District’s new superintendent Dick Cvitanich spent several evenings and weekends this summer enjoying two of his favorite pastimes: bicycle riding and talking about schools.

“I just kind of head out and I ride to the neighborhoods schools are at,” he said. “It’s a great way to get people’s opinions on the school district and what their experiences have been.”

People seem more willing to talk and be candid if they’re on their sidewalk, or in their neighborhood, Cvitanich said.

“I think if I held a meeting, nobody would show up,” he said with a chuckle.

Cvitanich, 61, took the helm July 1, replacing Bill Lahmann, who retired in June. Cvitanich previously served as superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District in Idaho, where he was twice nominated as Idaho’s Superintendent of the Year.

Before that, he was assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Puyallup School District, an administrator in the Highline School District south of Seattle, and a high school principal in the Vashon School District.

One of Cvitanich’s first official duties in Olympia was to lead a retreat for the district’s administrative team. Olympia High School principal Matt Grant said Cvitanich used the event to outline his vision and management strategy, which is largely based on Michael Fullan’s book, “The Moral Imperative of School Leadership.”

Cvitanich said the idea is to get principals in the district to compete against each other, but still help each other so that Olympia schools can become the best in the state.

“He’s got the skills of a teacher, and he’s also very dynamic,” Grant said. “He’s got some very strong beliefs and he’s not afraid to show them.”

During the summer, Cvitanich spoke to a number of South Sound service clubs. He also toured schools as teachers moved in, met with both high school football teams, and served as a judge at Sand in the City.

His calendar is jam-packed with meet-and-greet events that he’s using to get his name and face out there.

“My goal is to try to go to as many open houses that are scheduled,” Cvitanich said. “It’s a chance to meet parents one on one.”

He said he has some ideas that could bring change to the district, including having schools adopt the same curriculum throughout the district instead of allowing each school to manage its own decisions on textbooks and teaching materials.

But right now, he’s still collecting information and getting to know the district’s issues through the eyes of parents, residents and school workers.

“I’m just really interested in building upon what’s here,” Cvitanich said.

One of Lahmann’s favorite traditions was to volunteer his lunch hour once or twice a month to fill in for a teacher or staff member as a way to stay connected with the schools and students.

Cvitanich has decided to serve as a “school liaison” at an elementary, middle and high school each year. The schools he drew from a hat this year were Avanti High School, Washington Middle School and Lincoln Options Elementary School.

“People will see me in their classrooms a lot,” he said. “I’ll write the principal evaluations and I hope to be their go-to guy if they need help. … To me, it’s the most important part of the work.”

Pioneer Elementary School principal Randy Weeks said he appreciates Cvitanich’s willingness to get involved with the principals and school staff.

“As he learns about the district culture and schools, he is also meeting with folks around the community to understand the work of our district on a deeper level,” Weeks said. “That investment of time and attention to detail will serve him well as he moves our district forward in the coming years.”

Centennial Elementary School principal Alice Drummer described Cvitanich as personable and easy to talk to.

“He’s very hands-on and has already demonstrated that he is genuinely interested in learning about and supporting the work that principals are doing at their schools,” she said.

Inside Cvitanich’s office, there are boxes that still need to be unpacked.

“It’s a gradual process,” Cvitanich joked.

But the items that he’s unpacked so far give a glimpse of his roots and personality: He’s a native Washingtonian through and through, and has the J.P. Patches doll and autograph to prove it.

The “George Cvitanich – Mayor” bumper sticker was from his dad’s election bid in Tacoma. It’s the city where he grew up, met his wife Diana (his junior high school sweetheart), and graduated from Wilson High School in 1969.

He loves to talk about Tacoma, and on a recent morning he was talking about the death of Ivan the gorilla, who lived for decades in the Tacoma-area shopping center B&I before he was sent to live out his life at Zoo Atlanta.

“I was really bummed. I remember going up and seeing Ivan,” he said. “As a kid in the early ’60s, the B&I was a fascinating place.”

Cvitanich and his wife have been married for 36 years and have three grown sons.

They signed a one-year lease on a townhouse so they could learn the area better before deciding where to buy a home.

Cvitanich said they’ve enjoyed reconnecting with family and friends in the area, and his time out of state gave him a new perspective on Washington’s schools.

“Idaho’s funding level is really low per student,” he said. “Despite the funding level at the state, there really is more opportunity here.”

During his downtime, Cvitanich enjoys cycling, reading and writing fiction.

He collects lunch boxes, and the ones on display in his office feature Rosie the Riveter, Howdy Doody and the California Raisins. There’s also a “South Park” lunch box – it was a gift from his kids.

Yes, he knows humor in the cartoon can get a little raunchy, but it’s one of his favorite shows.

“I think the writing is absolutely great,” Cvitanich said.

lpemberton@theolympian.com 360-754-5433 www.theolympian.com/edblog @Lisa_Pemberton

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