By Amy Rowley
Behind the soft voice, passion exudes. Raj Manhas, Superintendent of North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS), smiles a wide grin and begins talking about student achievement. His pride in his team is evident.
“The district is here as a support system, but the real work is happening in the classroom. Teachers are inspired and making constant efforts to do better for our students,” describes Manhas who has led the district since 2009. Previously, Manhas worked for Seattle Public Schools, the largest school district in Washington State.
Manhas explains that NTPS operates with a shared leadership approach, where every person has a role. “We believe in working together as a team, at every level,” he says.
In a school district with great cultural diversity, a migratory population of military families and high poverty levels, Manhas’ team is up against odds that some may say are stacked against them.
Instead, Manhas looks at the diversity as a positive. “It is so important to be a balanced student as kids grow up. In this fast changing world, kids need resiliency, discipline, and compassion to work with people from around the world,” Manhas notes.
“We celebrate our diversity,” he continues. “We focus on the whole child, not just academic progress. If students are not totally present, due to social or emotional well-being issues, then it’s difficult to learn in the classroom.”
“We are very intentional on this work of balancing social and emotions while supporting academics,” adds Manhas.
To accomplish this approach, Manhas is guiding a large team that is currently publicizing outstanding student achievement scores. To release the scores, he brought all the district principals together, supporting his shared leadership approach. “The principals will then pull their staff together to talk about the scores and bring back ideas for future goals,” he explains.
A focus on constant improvement is evident throughout the district. “The conversation (about future goals) involves everyone. We are seeking input that engages people to learn together,” Manhas adds.
Over the past four years, Manhas has built a culture within NTPS that also focuses on being open and honest with each other. “It’s an absolute inspiration to watch development. It’s a deep belief, in our district, that people should not operate in fear or stress. We create an environment that expects high performance from ourselves and others,” says Manhas.
As a result, the teachers are celebrating student test scores which are the highest in any year. Manhas says that the district has seen tremendous growth in math and science scores. NTPS scores are better than the state average in virtually every category. In fact, some of the higher poverty schools saw 20 – 40 point gains in some areas and grade levels. “It’s truly phenomenal what can happen when you are relentless in your goal,” he says.
Beyond test scores, NTPS is also known in the state for high graduation rates. More than 85% of high school students are graduating on-time. Battling demographics that are more challenging than neighboring school districts, Manhas is especially proud of the graduation rate which is almost eight percentage points higher than the state average.
True to Manhas’ philosophy, each school is also working hard to build systems of support for students and recognizing positive behavior. Discipline issues, across the district, have dropped by 20% in just the last two years. “Lower discipline issues means that kids are spending more time learning in the classroom and principals are spending less time dealing with problem behavior. This frees up the administrators to support teachers,” explains Manhas.
As Manhas looks to the future in a district growing by about 200 new elementary students every year, he sees the need to build more schools. To manage the influx of students, the NTPS board will be proposing a bond in February 2014, eight years after the last bond.
The district is transitioning junior high schools into 6 – 8 grade middle schools. Moving sixth graders into the middle school frees up classroom space in the elementary schools. However, only two junior high schools, Chinook and Nisqually, have the extra space to accommodate sixth graders.
Along with building new schools and renovating some that are more than 30 years old, the bond will also make some security improvements to school entrances.
“Strong schools make strong communities. This investment is for the future,” he says in support of the upcoming bond.
During Manhas’ tenure, the district reserve fund has grown. “It’s a remarkable story,” he says. “In 2009, NTPS had $3.4 million in reserves. Gradually, we have grown that to $12 million.”
Manhas stresses that the fund balance growth didn’t happen overnight. “We have been very intentional at looking at efficiencies and working together. We are being strategic and asking ‘does this make sense?’ We eliminated duplications so that we can be prudent managers of vital funds.”
Manhas gives the credit, for growing the reserve fund, to the staff. And, comments that the team was able to save this money during bad economic times when the state and federal government was struggling to make payments to school districts.
As Manhas heads into the 2013 school year, the focus will continue to be on building the whole child.
“Every decision we make, any discussion we have regarding policy, we ask if it’s good for the kids,” says Manhas.
“Students remain at the center of all that we do,” summarizes Manhas.
A few additional areas of note regarding the successes happening at North Thurston Public Schools:
- 2011, 2012 School of Distinction award: Olympic View
- 2012 Washington Achievement Awards: Lakes, Mountain View, Aspire
- 67 point growth in SAT scores in last 3 years, plus 20 percent higher participation
- 2 National Merit Finalists (North Thurston High School)
- #1 student newspaper in the state, Timberline Blazer (and 4th in the nation)
- 20 percent reduction in office referrals (more time for learning)
- North Thurston Math Club, 1st at State and national qualifier
- $4.8 million in taxpayer savings through bond refinancing
- State Elementary Science Teacher of the Year (Julie Wyatt, Pleasant Glade)
- Golden Apple Award (Leslie VanLeishout, River Ridge)
- Supervisor of the Year, Washington School Counselor Assc. (Dr. Maddy deGive, Asst. Supt.)
For more information about North Thurston Public Schools, click here.