The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Lou Marzeles

GSD's new education team on the job


October 16, 2019


NEW APPROACH AND NEW TEAM: The Goldendale School District has a fresh approach to teaching and a new superintendent and principal joining Business Manager Dean Schlenker. Top, new Supertendent Dr. Ellen Perconti (left), Middle School Principal Jennifer Tenney (center), and Schlenker.

Dr. Ellen Perconti and Jennifer Tenney are already moving to bring a fresh stability to the Goldendale School District. Perconti is the new superintendent, and Tenney takes over as principal of the middle school. Along with Business Manager Dean Schlenker, the team is working to help pained memories of a district in turmoil fade away.

Perconti knows the history. "I just invite people to judge me for who I am and not for who's been in the position before," she says. "Ian [Grabenhorst] last year did a fantastic job of building that bridge from one superintendent into another. He and Dean made great decisions, and very difficult decisions, over the course of last year, and I really appreciate their leadership and help with our transition."

The new superintendent comes with an impressive CV. She held leadership positions with the 211-student Grapeview School District and the Mary M. Knight School District in Elma, which has 150 students plus another 1,500 enrolled online. She became the superintendent at Grapeview in 2018 and joined Mary M. Knight as principal/superintendent in 2014. She's been a member of OSPI's K-12 Data Governance Team, and last year negotiated to bring a full-time principal position to the Mary M. Knight school. Perconti earlier worked as superintendent/principal at Idaho's West Bonner County School District in Priest River during 2012-2014. Earlier, she was with the Lewiston School District for 20 years, serving as a K-8th grade music teacher, K-12th assessment coordinator, and for 10 years as director of curriculum. Perconti attended the University of Iowa for her bachelor's degree in music education and music therapy, then obtained her master's degree in music education and her Ph.D. in education at the University of Idaho.

Perconti says the emphasis now in Goldendale is on working as an administrative team to deepen the learning for students. "We want to create a more engaging learning environment where the students really want to be there and want to be learning," she says. "So that's one of our main focuses around, how do we really support teachers and developing lessons and ways of working with students that address them as a whole individual? Not just this segment of your learning, but as a whole individual,

The team is focused on getting back to true education, and that means meeting one of the core concerns that has circled around education for decades: getting kids to actually acquire lifetime knowledge rather than making sure answers are right for a given test.

"I think there's a pendulum in education," Perconti says, "and we swung all the way. 'Can you fill in the right bubbles on the right test?' But we really want students when they leave our system to be good humans. We're pulling that way. It's really wanting them to be able to succeed in the workforce, succeed in college, whatever that choice is. But also just-do they know who they are? Do they know how they interact with others, how they interact with the world, and how do we make sure that's a piece of our education?"

Perconti points to specific tools to help accomplish this broad philosophical goal. "We had a workshop in August for staff on wellbeing," Perconti cites as an example. "What does it look like to have that self-understanding and develop those connections? And then how do we begin to put that into the curriculum? We also are taking advantage of a grant which is allowing us to connect with an initiative called New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. It's a Michael Fullan process. They have what they call the six C's, which are character, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, citizenship, and creativity. So it's looking at that continuum, where are we with that? When a kid becomes excited about their learning, they're much more likely to engage."

Unions and finances

It's a reassuring approach that seems to resonate with teachers and staff who've faced their own challenges in the wake of the McCleary decision and its aftermath of chaos and finger pointing. Schlenker says Goldendale has been able to develop "a great working relationship with our unions. Ellen and I have been working with them over the last a few months, specially the teachers union, on some new contract language. There was no additional cost to the district in that process, and I believe we still have a great working relationship with both our unions. In fact, both of them pretty much thanked us for how transparent we were last year, because we went around to the buildings and talked with them about McCleary and the reasons why we had to make the cutbacks and why Goldendale was affected so negatively versus other school districts. There was an appreciation on being so transparent."

Schlenker ponders what made McCleary even possible. "I don't think they understood the cause and effect," he says of the legislators. "It sounded like it was an 11th hour decision trying to settle the lawsuit and that $100,000-a-day fine they were receiving for not fully funding education, but they didn't understand the ramifications." The Goldendale district is now working on what a new levy. "We're hoping the taxpayers can look at supporting the next levy so we could maybe restore some of those programs," he says. "We put a presentation together for the board over the last two months to review. They're going to vote in October to look at passing a resolution to go out on the February ballot."

The middle school

Tenney says she knew there was some tension in the school. "What I've found is that we have, I have a staff that of teachers and paraeducators and every person from the secretaries in the office to the lunch lady, they are all incredibly willing to do extra and try to help students. That's what their main focus has been-what do we need to do to help our students succeed? That really makes me feel positive as a principal to know that the people that I have in my building are working towards helping students' success and willing to do a little extra. It's been a challenge, but it's been good because of the people and their attitude."

Tenney comes from a small town in northwest Montana called Libby. "It's my home and I love it dearly," she says. "And Goldendale is a lot like Libby. My husband and I have driven up to Goldendale many, many times to spend Saturdays. We'd get in our car and drive towards the sun, and we ended up in Goldendale." The Tenneys lived in the Yakima Valley, where she taught multiple grades for many years, since 1989. She taught in Harrah and White Swan and also served as a math coach and an administrator in the Yakima district. Shclenker adds to her background, pointing out that she was also the 2018 Regional Teacher of the Year for ESD 105. "We have a home still in white Swan that my daughter lives in," she says. "And when we were in white Swan, we would often just get in our car and end up in Goldendale and spend a Saturday enjoying it here because I think this is an incredibly beautiful place, and it's much like my home in Montana. It's beautiful, and it's filled with the same kind of people as Libby was. I find the same hardworking, great individuals who care about their community and care about what's happening and work hard to, to make things happen."

Tenney was in Yakima when Grabenhorst gave her a call. "I always wanted to be in middle school," she says, "so I was excited that this was the middle school opportunity. When I came out of the interview process and got in my car and turned to my friends, I said it felt like home. It just had that feeling. I was excited and really honored when they called and asked me if I would accept the position."

Accentuate the positive

Above, Michael Fullan's '6 C's' model is being incorporated into school curricula.

Perconti is asked if there's a unified field theory for effective education. "I think we're working on that unified plan," she says. "One of the things that's really hard as a superintendent coming in in July is the people in education aren't around in July. It really takes some time with the people in the system to really get a sense of what are they thinking, how do they think, how do we work together in order to do what we need to for our kids? In general, I just feel, let's do really good things. Like [Tenney] says, we have staff that are willing to do anything. They are really willing to pull together for the good of our kids. Building on that, being able to celebrate that, the word that gets out about the good things that are happening. I guess if there's one guiding thing I have now, it's how do we build on the positive?"

Tenney follows up on that thought. "As a beginning principal," she says, "I really appreciate the parents and families who come in to support me. I've had parents come in and say that they really appreciate me being here, and they want to know something about the people whose hands their kids are in. At the beginning of the school year, I got to meet with a lot of the parents and talk about giving each other grace. Throughout this year, I would request sometimes that they give me grace. But on the other hand, I really believe it's important to give children grace because kids-this is their growing time in their life when they can grow and make mistakes and grow from those mistakes. So my staff and I have talked about that as giving children grace to be able to grow."


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