Timberline principal Lehnis retiring after 30 years in North Thurston

It’s easy for Timberline High School principal Dave Lehnis to list some of the highlights of his career: A state-of-the-art $60 million remodeled school building in 2008, improved student achievement measured by standardized test scores and a better reputation for the nearly 1,600-student school in Lacey.

“I don’t hear ‘Timberslime’ very often any more,” he said. “We have overcome most of that.”

Lehnis, 64, will retire at the end of the month after working 30 years in North Thurston Public Schools -- with half of that time at the helm of the district’s largest high school.

Lehnis moved to River Ridge High School when it opened in 1993, but returned to Timberline three years later as its assistant principal.

In 1998, school reported dismal scores during its first year of the now defunct Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), with 67.7 percent of 10th graders meeting the state’s standard in reading, 47.9 percent in writing and 37.1 percent in math. A decade later, for the final year of the WASL, those reading and writing scores had climbed to 87.7 percent and 95.5 percent respectively; the school’s math scores inched to 45.8 percent in 2008-2009.

Scores on the new tests, known as the Measures of Student Progress and the High School Proficency Exam, for the 2012-13 school year, the most recent available, show 93.1 percent students passing n reading, 94.9 percent in writing, 52.2 percent in math, although 80.1 percent of students passed on the second try of their end of course exam.

In 2009, for the first time, Timberline made Newsweek’s annual list of the top 1,500 schools in the country. It was one of only two Thurston County schools -- the other was Olympia High -- to make the list which was based on the number of students who take Advanced Placement exams. And earlier this year, Timberline was among 413 schools in the state to receive the 2013 Washington Achievement Award, based on state assessment data for the previous three years.

Assistant principal Paul Dean, who has been at Timberline since 1999, is moving into the school’s top spot.

Lehnis said Dean is well prepared for the transition. “There are a lot of good people in good places,” he said.

Those who have worked with him say Timberline is a better place because of his leadership.

“He has a huge heart and cares about every student he has come across,” said Dena Ferris, the district’s labor relations coordinator and Lehnis’s former longtime office assistant. “Dave has made Timberline High School the wonderful school that it is, and that will forever be his legacy.”

Lehnis said he thinks Timberline is a great place and he’s been humbled and honored to be part of the school for so long. But it’s time to enjoy the next phase in life, he said.

“Fifteen years (as principal) is probably long enough, and I think the school is in good shape,” he said. “And my wife retired last year.”

So what are his retirement plans?

“This is sort of cliche, but whatever I want, whenever I want, with whoever I want,” he said. “With usually my wife.”

Lehnis said his deteriorating eyesight was a factor too. He was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary eye disease without a cure.

In recent years, he’s experienced more symptoms including tunnel vision, color blindness and night blindness.

Lehnis grew up in Illinois. He knew by the time he was a senior in high school that he wanted to become a teacher and coach.

Part of it was because he liked some of his teachers, he said.

“A couple, I thought, ‘I can do better than this,’” he added.

Lehnis attended Danville Area Community College and Northern Illinois University, obtaining a degree in history with a teacher certification. He taught at a Catholic high school for four years and a public school for two in Illinois.

In 1978, he and his wife, Jane, moved to South Sound because they were looking for a change, he said.

Lehnis taught at St. Michael Parish School in Olympia for six years before taking a job as a social studies teacher at Timberline in 1984.

He said his favorite part about teaching was trying to stay current on curriculum and teaching practices, and developing a connection with students.

“He may have a tough exterior sometimes, but there is no doubt that when it comes to kids, teachers, staff, colleagues, friends and family, he takes care of his own,” said Becky Downey, a former Timberline teacher and consulting educator.

In addition to teaching, Lehnis coached sports over the years including softball, basketball, track and football.

South Sound High School principal Rich Yelenich team-taught with Lehnis for about five years in the 1980s, and then served as Lehnis’s assistant principal from 2001 to 2009.

“Dave’s compassion for people and his attention to detail have helped make him an outstanding high school administrator, teacher and coach,” Yelenich said.

Lehnis said he’s enjoyed his job, but it’s had its challenges.

“Doing discipline was never one of my favorite things,” Lehnis said.

But even when disciplining difficult students, Timberline’s dean of students Jeanne Cunningham said Lehnis’s approach was always “What is best for the student?”

Timberline 2013 graduate Stacey Ejim, 18, said she never saw Lehnis’s tough exterior. She said students respected him, and knew he cared about them.

“Something I really loved about him was he was a big supporter of the arts,” she said. “He really made an effort to go to all of the plays and concerts and he generally cared. He was, like, our biggest fan.”

Lehnis said the darkest days of his career were in June 2007, when Timberline underwent a series of bomb threats. One of the threats was directed personally at him, and stated “Enjoy your life ending.”

The school was evacuated several times during the ordeal.

“For about 10 or 12 days, it was almost daily,” Lehnis said. “The Lacey police did their job, but the FBI got involved.”

A former Timberline student pleaded guilty to identity theft and making the threats, and was sentenced to 90 days in juvenile detention.

“All in all, it was a trying and stressful time, but we made it through,” Lehnis later wrote in a letter to The Olympian. “A reporter asked me if there was a silver lining in all this, and here it is: The Timberline community drew closer together, as did the Lacey community.”

Timberline was the poster child for North Thurston Public Schools’ $112 million bond measure that was approved by voters in 2006, after failing in 2004.

In January 2008, Timberline staff and students moved into their new nearly 107,000-square-foot, three-level school building. It replaced a 1970s-era open concept school that had vintage science labs, rundown bathrooms, desks repaired with duct tape and an unpredictable heating system that made some parts of the school feel like a sauna, and other parts felt like an icebox.

Kimberly Belmes, 17, who graduated from Timberline this month, said Lehnis always reminded students about the importance of respecting their school by not littering or causing damage.

“I know he took a lot of pride in our school,” she said. “...You could tell it was his baby.”