Leadership series: How this superintendent uses the power of listening to build bridges

At Mount Adams School District in central Washington, Superintendent Curt Guaglianone empowers his students, staff and parents to seek solutions from within to solve their own problems.

In the Yakima Valley of central Washington lies Mount Adams School District, the home of just over 900 students, mostly Native American and Hispanic. Located on the Yakama Indian Reservation, these students, while few in number, set themselves apart from any other district or community in the nation based on one thing: their respect for their elders. And as for the man who leads this wonderful bunch of students, he couldn’t be more thankful.

Dr. Curt Guaglianone, the superintendent at Mt. Adams for his seventh year, has navigated a long and diverse professional journey to end up where he is now. It all started where you’d least expect it: in the office of his parents’ marriage counselor.

When he was in high school he played with the idea of going into medicine because he has a heart for helping people.

“But I can’t stand the sight of blood, so that wasn’t a good option for me,” he says with a laugh.

The beginning of a long journey

At the age of 16, he met someone who would serve as a mentor for the trajectory of his career. Guaglianone’s parents were going through a rough patch in their marriage and considered getting a divorce until they went and saw a marriage counselor.

“They’re still married after sixty-some years,” he says with a smile. “I wanted to be just like our counselor. I wanted to change lives like him. That’s what he did for us.”

After that experience, Guaglianone decided to become a marriage and family therapist. He would follow in his counselor’s footsteps by studying at the same universities as him for both his undergraduate and master’s degrees. While he was working on fulfilling his required hours to become a full-time marriage and family therapist, he figured he might as well teach, and that’s when the spark was lit.

After spending some time teaching at a private Catholic high school in Fresno, California, he began interning at a counseling clinic. But he needed to pay the bills.

“I started teaching at the community college in order to pay the bills, so I taught general psychology in a large group auditorium, sometimes up to 250 students in a class,” he says. “So I was more of an entertainer than an educator,” he chuckles. “But I fell in love with teaching adults, and that was the turning point of my life.”

“In one particular class I had a man who was in his 70s that had been in kindergarten with my grandfather,” he says. “And he was sitting next to a 17-year-old girl who was still in high school taking a college-level course, and they had the best intergenerational conversations. And I had students every day coming to class just eager to learn about psychology and how the mind worked, and I fell in love with teaching adults. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living.’”

Several years later, Guaglianone would open up his own private practice running a counseling center with a colleague of his while continuing to teach at the community college part-time.

“I did very well except for one thing,” he says. “When I spent all day long talking to other people it was difficult to come home and talk to my own family and my wife and I started thinking, ‘This isn’t going to work.’”

After realizing some changes were in order, he accepted a job as the counselor/vice principal of a nearby high school, marking the beginning of what would become a long career in K12. Fast-forward several years: He applied for a job at California State University, Stanislaus as an associate professor in education administration.

“I left K12, kind of, and became a professor,” Guaglianone says. “And I say ‘kind of’ because about a month into my first year as a professor I went to our department chair and said, ‘Roy, where are all of the people? They don’t call us. We don’t call them. They don’t come and visit. We don’t go visit them.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ve arrived. You’re in higher ed now. You don’t need to do all those things.’ And I said, ‘That’s not why I got into higher ed.’”

“So I called the Stanislaus County superintendent at the time and asked, ‘Can I come back to the superintendent meetings? Can I come back to the special ed meetings? Can I come back to the curricula meetings?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ve never had a professor attend those before, but yeah, come on back!’ So 25 years later I’ve always been part of the local superintendents’ meetings, I’ve always attended other sites of curricula meetings and kept my feet in both camps.”

Guaglianone spent many years in higher education, including as the dean of the College of Education at California State University, Bakersfield and continuing to attend county superintendent meetings and serving as interim superintendent several times, but eventually he was recruited to relocate to Heritage University in central Washington, which would serve as the final stepping stone to becoming superintendent.

“After spending four years as provost at Heritage University, I was approached by the ESD superintendent to come to Mount Adams School District to be superintendent, where I am now, which is located on the Yakama Indian Reservation in the Yakama Valley of central Washington.”

The presbyterate of the principalship”

Like a priest shepherding his flock, Guaglianone shepherds his own bunch with the intent of building bridges for people. For him, it’s not all about the knowledge and tools he learned as an administrator, it’s using the power of listening to lead people in solving their own problems.

“I probably use that skill set more than any other skill set in everything I do,” he explains. “It was invaluable. Just being able to listen and to sort through things and to understand that I will never understand what someone else is going through. That’s probably the most important skill or knowledge that I have is that we can never fully know what someone else is going through. Even if we’ve gone through it ourselves, they have their own unique perspectives of life and the way they see the world that none of us share.”

Like most district leaders across the country, he’s using these skills to help both teachers and students be successful after the pandemic.

“They’re so glad to be back, honestly,” he says. “They’re excited to be able to do what they want to do, which is teach. One of my number one desires as a principal was to clear the way so that teachers could teach and counselors could counsel. That’s their job.”

“Administrators are the same way,” he adds. “I was actually just at the District Administration Leadership Institute summit, and the common theme was that kids are different coming back from COVID. There are more fights, there are more inappropriate social interactions and there’s a lot of bullying. Those things were present before, but nothing like it is right now.”

And while the COVID era proved to one of the busiest times for superintendents, this year is, too. For Guaglianone, empowering others is how he spends most of his time.

“One of the things that keeps me the busiest is something that I learned about myself in my doctoral program,” he says. “I wrote a paper in my leadership class that was called ‘The Presbyterate of the Principalship.’ Presbyterate means the priesthood, and priests build bridges between people and God. My cousin was a pastor at the same time I was a principal, and we would compare notes. And he would shepherd his flock, and I’d be shepherding my flock. We had the same challenges and the same opportunities.”

“But the reality of it is, my job as a building leader was to build bridges for students and staff, and parents, to help them with whatever it is that they needed to accomplish in their lives. For students, it was making sure they were in the right classrooms with the right teachers. Or, there was one little girl, a teenage girl, that did not own a pair of socks. She came to school every day without a pair of socks, so I bought her a whole package of socks. Now that was building a bridge so that she could have warm feet and be like other kids.”

“We have a new special needs student who needs a full-time driver almost because he’s taking classes 30 miles away from the district. So I’m working with the union to create a new CNA/bus driver position to build a bridge so that young man can get to his education destination so that he can be successful. So that’s what I do. I spend the majority of my time building bridges so people can be successful in accomplishing what it is what they want to accomplish in life or their career.”

Setting priorities

Every district leader, especially since the pandemic, has their own set of priorities specific to their community. Guaglianone, with confidence, can name you two areas that are top-of-mind: school safety and ensuring students are college and career ready.

“Priority number one is school safety. No matter what, no matter where, no matter how, we need to create a safe school environment,” he says.

“My number two priority is making sure that all students graduate college and career ready. If you look at our conceptual framework, our framework is designed with ‘all students graduate from White Swan High School college and career ready’ at the center. So we ask ourselves, ‘What do we need to do in order to make that happen?’ One of the other challenges we have being on a reservation, particularly our reservation, is we have probably the worst attendance rate in the state. We’re 55% Native and about 41% Hispanic. 61% of our Hispanic population has good attendance. That means nearly 40% are chronically absent. Among our native students, 30% have good attendance. That means 70% of our native students are chronically absent, which clearly impacts their graduation rate and their ability to earn credits. So how do we bridge that gap and how do we incentivize any of our students to come to school more often? For one, school is the safest place in town. That’s clearly been proven in many ways. And the kids that come love it here because it’s safe and they get fed and people care about them, and we really do care about them.”

“Additionally, we have a lot of recovery options for them and classes where they can do in and make extra credit, we have after-school programs where they can earn extra credit, and we’ve created a large number of new pathways for college graduation. We also have an early release Wednesday where instead of having regular classes on Wednesday, we have regular every other day, and on Wednesdays, we have high-interest classes. We have Yakama Nation elders come in and speak about the Yakama Nation and their experiences. We have police officers–it’s kind of a career development program where we invite people from different careers to come in and spend time with kids. We offer more art classes, we offer more computer classes, we have a gaming class, there’s lot of things we do that are very high interest for students.”

Another issue that has plagued the district for decades, he adds, is student literacy, which ties directly into his concern of making sure students graduate college and career ready.

“Instead of a 3rd-grade reading goal ours is 4th-grade,” he mentions. “What we have to do is we’ve shifted all of our intensive reading instruction to K-3. We’ve given the aides and the teachers special training, and this year for the very first time we have every kindergartener, all 80 of them, knowing all their letters and sounds by Christmas. That has never ever, ever happened in our district, at least in my seven years and I don’t think any time before that.”

“My priority is to turn this district of 900 students around and help them to value education and understand the importance of coming to school so that they can graduate college and career ready and become productive citizens. And we do that by building bridges for students and staff to be able to be successful.”

A district that models respect

For Guaglianone, it’s easy to describe what makes his district special, because he’s worked in districts of all kinds, shapes and sizes. According to him, Mount Adams is unique for two reasons: the respect students have for their elders and the passion of his staff.

The kids, and I don’t mean that tritely,” he says regarding what makes his district so special. “I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve worked in a lot of districts. And clearly, far none, it is we have the most respectful students towards adults of any place I’ve ever worked. Kid to kid they’re still kid to kid. We have those issues. But as an adult, I have students that stop and face me and say, ‘How’s your day, Mr. Superintendent?’ They’ll open the door for me. They will have a conversation with me, because culturally Native Americans are respectful of their adults. Hispanic students for the most part are very respectful of their adults. And when they’re on campus our teachers are treated respectfully. Our students are the most respectful of any students I’ve ever worked with in any community I’ve ever worked. I’ve worked in rich and poor districts. Our students are different in that way. And that makes this an amazing place.”

As for his educators and administrators, those who choose to work at Mount Adams are there for the right reasons.

“We go through a lot of teachers. And most of our teachers travel through five other districts to get to our district. So they could work a whole lot closer to town. And many of them use Mount Adams as their first teaching job and as soon as a closer teaching job opens up closer to home they take it. But the ones that get out here and fall in love with our community and our needs and our kids, they stay. They stay for the right reason because they have the heart to make a difference in the lives of these kids. And because of that, the teachers and administrators that are here are here for one purpose, and that is to make a difference.”

More from DA: Leadership series: How Florida’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year raised graduation rates by nearly 30%

Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttp://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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