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Rural beginnings led to exploration and education for new Issaquah superintendent
Ron Thiele is deeply connected to southeast King County.
Thiele, the new superintendent of the Issaquah School District, was born in Enumclaw and grew up on Lake Sawyer. He graduated from Kent-Meridian High School in 1981. After his first teaching job at Patrick Henry Junior High in the San Fernando Valley, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, he returned to Washington state to take a teaching job in the Tahoma School District where he spent 10 years.
Up until quite recently, Thiele and his wife Jill, made their home in Maple Valley where they settled in 1992. His younger daughter Paige will be a senior at Tahoma High while his wife works as a paraeducator at Glacier Park Elementary. There has been a Thiele, he noted, at Glacier Park since it opened as a middle school in 1994 when he started there as a teacher.
“My roots in the community go way back, but, I was on the Kent side of the lake,” Thiele said. “We had to drive a long way to schools back in those days. It was very rural in that area.”
After high school, Thiele spent a year at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, but being a kid from a rural community on Lake Sawyer, he wanted to be in the city. He had friends at the University of Washington, so, he set his sights on becoming a Husky. He spent a year at Seattle Central Community College then transferred to UW where he earned a degree in international studies. Teaching wasn’t yet on his radar.
He spent more than three months in China after finishing at UW. Thiele said he considered foreign service but he wasn’t sure after his experience abroad. He considered law school because that’s what his classmates in the Jackson School of International Studies seemed to do at the time but that didn’t seem to be his calling, either.
“I was exploring,” Thiele said.
The youngest of six, Thiele found work with his brother who is in the construction business. One day, though, he decided to venture into the School of Education at UW. He asked a woman working there about their post-graduate teaching certification programs. She told him he would have to wait a year to start and the program would last about 18 months.
Thiele wasn’t sure about waiting two and a half years to start generating an income. The friends he lived with in a house in the University District while he was at UW went their separate ways. At that point, he moved into an apartment in Ballard with a friend, and he heard of Seattle Pacific University which was just a short drive away at the bottom of Queen Anne hill.
“I stopped in and said, ‘Hey, do you guys have a teaching program,’” Thiele said. “They said, ‘Yes, in fact, we have classes starting next week.’ So, that’s how my relationship started with SPU.”
He earned his teaching certification at SPU — he would later earn his principal’s certification and a master’s in school administration from the small, private university — then student taught and substitute taught in the Seattle Public Schools after graduating in the middle of the year in 1986.
One day he went down to a career fair at the Tacoma Dome — had ended up late because he subbed that day — in search of job leads.
“There weren’t a ton of jobs here,” Thiele said. “As I was walking out I walked by the LA Unified District booth. I explained to the woman what my background was … that I was very comfortable teaching in an urban environment and she offered me a teaching contract and I took it.”
He worked at Patrick Henry Junior High, a large school at the time with 1,200 students in seventh through ninth grades. After he moved to the San Fernando Valley and got his life set up, Thiele said, he went home over winter break and proposed to Jill. She worked for Nordstrom at the time, so, she transferred from the store she worked at to one in Southern California.
Then in 1991, Thiele was a victim of a recession and lost his job as part of a reduction in force, commonly known in the teaching business as being RIF’d.
“We always knew we would come back to the Northwest,” Thiele said. “So, I decided to put out applications up here. This was the spring of 1991. There was no online application process. This was old school.”
Thiele called his mother and ask her to help him get his hands on applications.
The first school district to call Thiele back was Tahoma. He traveled to Maple Valley in July 1991, interviewed for and was offered a job at Tahoma Junior High, which had a brand new principal who just came from Tukwila, a man named Bruce Zahradnik.
When the Thieles moved back to Washington state, they rented an apartment in Issaquah not far from the district office he now works in. His wife worked at Nordstrom in Bellevue while he commuted to Maple Valley. Their first home was built in a subdivision just blocks from Glacier Park. They moved in Oct. 31, 1992. And 13 months later their daughter Kendall, who is now a student a Western Washington University, was born. His older daughter attended kindergarten at Rock Creek Elementary then when she was in first grade, the district moved elementary students from Cedar River to Glacier Park and middle school students from Glacier Park to Cedar River.
“I opened Glacier Park when I was a teacher in 1994,” Thiele said. “The school was built as an elementary but we commandeered it because we had a bubble at the middle level, it was an all seventh grade building, then I became an assistant principal.”
Then when Zahradnik moved into the Tahoma district office, Thiele became the principal at the middle school. At the end of the 1999-2000 school year, he and his staff swapped buildings with Emilie Hard and her staff. Hard, by the way, is now the executive director of teaching and learning in the Issaquah School District.
Thiele was the first principal at Cedar River Middle School, a job he served in for a year before moving to the Issaquah School District to take over as principal at Issaquah Middle School.
“I loved being a classroom teacher and I loved the idea of being able to influence what I believe were the best practices in terms of instructional leadership,” Thiele said. “If you have passion for that you realize as a teacher, I can influence my students and some of my colleagues in my department, but as a principal I can have influence over an entire building.
I’ve always been interested in leadership. Being a school administrator gave me the opportunity to have a broader influence over the educational program and one of the things I talk about is the overall experience people have in our school systems, not just the students, but the parents and the staff.”
What appealed to him about the move into the Issaquah School District was that it was an opportunity to work at a larger school in a larger district as well as the fact it was a middle school with three grades.
“It allowed students to develop an affiliation with their school and for me to get to know the students and their families better because I would have them for three years,” Thiele said. “One of the hardest things I ever had to do was leave Cedar River Middle School. I had been with those people for 10 years as a colleague, as an assistant principal and as a principal.”
There are times, though, when you can’t pick the timing of an opportunity, Thiele said, and this time he decided to pursue it. It seems to have worked out, he said, now that he has risen to the highest level of leadership in the district as superintendent.
He enjoyed working in Tahoma, learned much and couldn’t be happier about the education his children received. Thiele hopes those who live in the community now will support it in November when they have a chance to vote on the district’s $195 million construction.
“When we moved to Maple Valley it was a great community, it grew so much in the time we were there,” Thiele said. “I really believe that the development of Maple Valley has been good for the community. I also believe that was good for the school district because now it’s a suburb. I sincerely, sincerely hope that the voters will pass the bond for the school system because they have real needs. I really support Mike (Maryanski) and Rob (Morrow) and the staff and what they’re trying to do. We feel our children received a world class education.”
Working in Tahoma and living in Maple Valley gave him an even deeper appreciation for the community of Issaquah where he has worked since 2001 and now lives.
“I absolutely love this community and have a deep affection for the staff, the kids, the families, and my wife Jill and I, are just thrilled to have a home built here,” Issaquah. “I was the associate superintendent for five years so it’s been a progression for me. I have a tremendous affection for the students, the community, the staff here. I’ve been at the table working closely with our school board which I feel very fortunate to have an outstanding school board.”
Thiele was appointed as superintendent by the Issaquah School Board in February. He pointed to the support of voters in the district, who passed the last bond at the height of the recession by more than 70 percent, the district’s foundation which raised more than $1 million last year, and the high level of participation in Parent Teacher Associations where some schools have community members who don’t even have children attending the school where they are in the PTA or PTSA.
He explained that some of the most educated people in the country live in the Issaquah School District due to the employers in the area. Because those people tend to value education the district receives an unusual level of support, Thiele said.
“That’s appealing when you’re in my business,” Thiele said. “I don’t have to go out and spend a lot of energy getting my community involved in schools.”
Instead, he plans to spend his energy in his first year as superintendent focused on three areas of emphasis, something he explained at the district’s recent leadership retreat.
“The first one is school safety and security,” he said. “I have a very comprehensive definition of what I mean by that, it’s not just emergency evacuation drills or construction of safe facilities. I want kids to feel good. It goes back to the idea of having the best experience possible. I feel kids will perform best academically if they feel safe.”
His second emphasis ties into that. He wants to encourage creating and cultivating a culture of kinds.
“Sometimes it’s hard in our business, emotions run high,” Thiele said. “These are people’s babies that we’re working with. When people feel like they’re in a friendly welcoming environment is they’re less likely to behave in less friendly ways.”
He wants students to feel welcome from the moment the bus doors swing open in the morning to the time they are interacting with a teacher in a classroom before the last bell rings.
“I really encourage kindness,” he said. “I just believe in it.”
His third emphasis is related to sustainability, something that is significant at the state level, as well.
“We have some incredible sustainability efforts,” Thiele said. “Our students really provide leadership in these areas. When you look at the recycling efforts and the composting efforts I think our young people have really embraced the idea of sustainability. I’m not going to sacrifice cleanliness or comfort in the learning environment but at the same time so much of what we can do is easy to do, it is right and here’s a really important point, it saves money.”
These are all important points, Thiele said, and he’s not implementing drastic changes because he believes there are many great things happening in the district as well as plenty things on the plates of teachers and administrators such as Common Core and new evaluation systems.
Ultimately, Thiele said, he believes deeply in the importance of education calling it the cornerstone of democracy in America. He said he owes the educators of the Kent School District, especially those along the way who were particularly encouraging to him and set high standards. He is also grateful for his experience in the Tahoma School District.
“Tahoma, under the leadership of Mike (Maryanski) and Nancy Skerrit and Bruce Zahradnik provided me with really cutting edge understanding of curriculum, instruction and leadership,” Thiele said. “I learned a tremendous amount. I brought that with me and developed that.”
But, Thiele is making his own mark on the Issaquah School District, though his roots in Lake Sawyer, Kent and Maple Valley still run deep.
“Having been at the district office now starting my 10th year, I just feel such a part of the mission of this school district and I feel privileged to be able to provide leadership in a community that supports public education,” Thiele said. “I live and breathe public education.”