LACEY – On Raj Manhas’ first day as North Thurston Public Schools superintendent, he met a student who was having fun with math.
The student was involved with the district’s Summer Clubhouse program, which is geared toward helping students build life and social skills before entering middle school.
“Why are you enjoying it more than your regular school?” Manhas said. “He said, ‘Because we are doing mathematics and art together.’ We need to find those innovative ways to connect with every child.
“We cannot just afford to say … ‘Sit down and (you) need to learn.’ We need to find ways to connect to children.”
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Manhas started his new job Monday, several months after he was chosen to replace superintendent Jim Koval, who retired after 40 years with the district.
Manhas, a former superintendent with Seattle Public Schools, said he plans to spend the first few months in his new district listening to community groups.
Sherry Carr, now a Seattle School Board member who was the president of the Seattle Council PTSA and who had served on a district committee, said that working with Manhas was a delight.
“I think they’ll find someone who listens carefully to people who work for him. I found him to be a very keen listener, and he is understanding of what people are trying to tell him,” she said.
North Thurston School Board President Aaron Owada said shortly after the board announced Manhas’ appointment that the community responded to his charisma and leadership in the surveys conducted after public meetings.
“We had three exceptionally well-qualified individuals. All the different groups believed that Raj was our best candidate,” Owada said.
DIFFERENT PATH TO EDUCATION
Manhas came to Seattle in 1971 after receiving an engineering degree from Panjab University in Chandigarh, India. He worked with Rainier Bank and with Seattle Public Utilities before becoming involved with the state public school system in 2001, as the Seattle Public Schools’ chief operating officer.
He was tapped to become Seattle’s interim superintendent after the resignation of Joseph Olchefske in June 2003. After a nationwide search for a superintendent, the Seattle School Board offered Manhas the job on a one-year contract in October 2003. He stayed until August 2007.
Despite his lack of experience in the field of education, Manhas said that he approaches public schools with a focus on how decisions affect students.
“Whatever job I’ve done, I’ve always looked at it as ‘Why do we exist,’” he said. “In education, to me, it’s the student. If the success of the student is not the focus, then what would be? It’s so simple. A lot of times we don’t do it.”
Seattle news reports from Manhas’ tenure as superintendent credited him with erasing a $35 million budget deficit and leaving the Seattle district with $20 million in reserves. The district also faced criticism for its decision to close several of its 100 public schools.
After leaving Seattle schools, Manhas spent time as the director of the nonprofit Seeds of Compassion, which organized a Seattle conference with the Dalai Lama.
Manhas did not consider returning to public schools until the North Thurston superintendent position opened up. Colleagues recommended the North Thurston community and board, and Manhas said he thought the job was a chance to be close to policymakers and legislators in Olympia that he met as head of Seattle schools.
“I think I could provide some leadership in some areas,” he said.
NORTH THURSTON’S FUTURE
Manhas also starts his tenure at North Thurston during a summer when the board faces trimming its 2009-10 budget in response to the state’s expected $9 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, and asking voters to pass a maintenance and operations levy in February.
Manhas pledged open communication and transparency with the community as a way to maintain support for the district.
“We have to be authentic and we have to honest, not only in our conversations with ourselves, but in our conversations with the public, because without that, we are not a public school system,” he said.
He said that one of his goals for the district, besides academic improvement, is to foster a school system that helps students develop socially and emotionally. He said that one of the community’s assets is its economic and cultural diversity.
“This was my big attraction to applying here: It is a diverse school system, and that is the real world, that is the United States,” he said. “If we can make this as a model school system, that would be my dream. That is my dream, that is my goal.”
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