'We won't miss a beat': Atwater eager to begin new position

Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Like many Alaskans, Dr. Steve Atwater moved to the great white north at a young age to lead a more adventurous life and make a buck.


The New York native left the East Coast in 1981 to make a little extra money for college by working on a crab boat out of Dutch Harbor.

Just shy of three decades later, the soon to be Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent is finding himself at the helm of his second Alaska school district.

That's part of the appeal of the state for Atwater.

"I think the ability to make your own way in Alaska is easer than most places. If you've got your wits about you and you've got a good drive I think you can make a decent go it. That's what I've always liked about Alaska," he said.

Atwater started his teaching career in 1990 in the Lower Yukon School District in Emmonak.

A few years later he started teaching at schools in the Lake and Peninsula District, where he worked his way up the ranks as a curriculum coordinator, ultimately becoming the superintendent.

He led in that post for seven and a half years, before moving to the peninsula with his wife and 14 year-old son, to become the district's assistant superintendent in July of last year.

Anyone who talks with Atwater for more than five minutes will quickly realize however, that it's not the past he wants to talk about, not where he went to school or what he's already done.

His past nonetheless, has made him a highly desirable candidate to school board members, who voted unanimously to hire him at their meeting held last week.

"He comes with great deal of experience," said Sammy Crawford, school board president.

Atwater said that coming from the much smaller and more remote Lake and Peninsula District, there are some obvious differences in the leadership roles he'll play here versus the one he had.

That being said, he noted that legal issues, administration and instruction remains very similar.

"Education is education, a lot of the basics of what we do in a little school or a big school, a small district or a big district, are very much the same," he said.

Atwater's time as an administrator has also left him in good standing with other educators and leaders across the state.

"We won't miss a beat," said current District Superintendent Dr. Donna Peterson. "At the state level he as has credibility statewide to lock up with legislators and provide leadership with other districts."

Strong connections with state leadership are crucial for any district right now.

"Fiscally the state is going into a flat period right now, they're reliant on savings to fund education," he said.

With tough times in the foreseeable future this is a potentially valuable asset. Atwater said he'd maintain the district's current policy of supporting sustainable budgeting.

Though he said the economic crisis might prohibit the district from undertaking any major expansions, he won't curtail his pursuit of providing a strong or innovative educational environment.

The mild-mannered Atwater becomes passionate when talking about teaching, particularly when it comes to using technology.

"Our teenagers are what are considered digital natives," Atwater said, explaining that youth today have grown up in a world where information and communication are streaming in, sometimes simultaneously, from multiple media.

He said this influx in rapid communication has changed the fundamental ways in which students learn.

"There's evidence now that students are actually wired differently in their brains," he said.

Not realizing this, or continuing to rely on traditional teaching methods that may be growing obsolete, would be a "mistake" in Atwater's opinion.

"What I don't want is for the schooling experience to be a big backward step from what is going on in the outside world," he said.

He admitted that training teachers to think and learn as their students do would be a challenge.

However, Atwater, who is taking over the only district in the state to have met adequate yearly progress standards for the past two years and one that remains on solid financial footing, has set himself to task on tackling a list of goals and challenges.

During his interview, Atwater presented board members with his plan for the first 180 days.

Crawford noted this particularly impressed her.

"The big thing for me was that he came in with a 180-day plan. Of course it was just a sketch of ideas, but it starts his very first day in office and includes every day right through to December," she said.

A few of Atwater's initiatives he said, included taking a look at what district graduates do not one, but two years after they leave high school, reassessing student performance and strengthening the sense of district unity.

He said he hopes to develop a "deeper level of trust" between the district administration and principals and teachers. This may include incorporating them into more decisions.

At the same time, Atwater said he didn't want to take away the site-based control that already exists through much of the district.

"It think it's critical that schools have their own sense of identity," he said.

He does hope to have teachers in the far-flung district collaborate more with each other.

"I want to build on the strengths of our staff at different schools," he said.

He pointed out that a teacher in Homer might have valuable insight on their material that they could share with their colleagues across the district, or vice-versa, and he hopes to create a more constant connection instead of once a year in-service days so those discussions are possible.

"We don't do a good job right now of harnessing all that we have in terms of sharing and collaboration," Atwater said.

While Atwater still has several months before he officially takes over, Peterson said the transition has already begun.

"We've been working together over the past year and will work even more closely in the next few months," Peterson said.

As for Atwater's soon to be vacated office, Peterson said administrators are to meet today to discuss the opening.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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