Alex Apostle will see his first Missoula County Public Schools graduation ceremony Saturday as he winds up a visit to his future home.
He also found time Friday to discuss his observations and job priorities with the Missoulian. The incoming superintendent officially starts work July 1. He replaces Jim Clark, who is retiring after six years leading MCPS.
Apostle, 60, retired as assistant superintendent of the Tacoma Public School District in 2001 and went into private real estate development in Scottsdale, Ariz.
In a 30-year education career, he served as principal and administrator in the Tacoma, Wash., system since 1991, and was principal in Issaquah, Sedro-Woolley, and Finley, Wash., schools between 1980 and 1991. He was a high school classroom teacher from 1971 to 1980, with a one-year break to earn his doctorate degree from the University of Idaho in Moscow.
Q: You toured the school district during the March search process, and now have had another visit to Missoula. What are your professional impressions of your new territory?
A: The people in the buildings and the people in the community are very proud of the city of Missoula and MCPS. They are extremely proud of the things that are going on in the schools and the community in general. I've really observed the appreciation of the culture and the history of the city of Missoula. The people in our schools have the heart to do great things and they're doing great things every single day, especially as it relates to budget and staffing constraints. We will continue to work hard to sustain the many successes of our school system. I believe the trustees, Dr. Clark, the teachers and the principals have done an outstanding job as far as educating the students in the district. I hope to do the same thing.
Q: One concern community members raised during the search process was the seven-year gap between your leaving the Tacoma Public School District and your return to education in Missoula. Has there been anything you've wanted to do or needed to do in preparing to be back in the saddle?
A: My heart and soul have never left education. My brothers, who are both in the field of education - that's all we talk about continually. One of the things that I recognize, and one of the motivating factors that brought me back into education, was that based on my experience and credentials, I had something to offer to education again. That was a great motivating factor. I believe my 30-plus years as a teacher, a principal and an assistant superintendent have given me a clear perspective of what quality education is. I certainly believe I know what constitutes quality teaching and quality administration as it relates to the field of education. Good teaching is good teaching.
Q: In that interim, most of the biggest changes of the federal No Child Left Behind rules had their impact on schools. That law is up for reauthorization. How do you see that affecting your priorities or administrative constraints?
A: We always have to have accountability in our schools. NCLB mandated things and it will continue to mandate things. I believe what we have to do in MCPS is determine our own destiny and set standards that exceed any state, federal or political guideline. That's what we're going to continue to try to do. One thing we have to continue to do, is do the very best we can in the core subject areas. It's necessary to make sure all of our students achieve the standards in reading, writing, math and science. We will gear the curriculum and the instructional program to that end.
Q: You are walking into a district in the middle of a tough budget planning time. Do you have any proposals or personal practices that might change some priorities as we head toward the August budget deadline?
A: I am gathering information and working with Dr. Clark on some of the budget priorities and some of the cutbacks that have been discussed. I'm not ready to comment on the budget. Obviously, you have to involve staff and the public in developing the budget, especially when there are constraints in the budget. That won't change.
Q: You are also taking over a district that has been in a state of declining enrollment for the past decade. How does that affect your administrative priorities?
A: You have to keep your eye on the demographics. If you have reductions in the number of students attending your school district, you have to take a look at what's happening over all the school district and make budgetary adjustments if you continue to decline.
My hope is we can do some things to increase enrollment. I'm looking forward to that challenge. I want to make Missoula a destination for all students. I want students who are in private schools right now to consider enrolling in our schools based on our high standards of achievement.
Q: What qualities would mark your administration?
A: Most important for me is that we are unified as a community - an educational community - to do the very best we can for our students. To develop a team which not only includes school personnel, but the entire community. My efforts are going to be to that end. We will involve the entire community in terms of our focus and direction.
Q: MCPS just finished completing a mission statement and five-year strategic plan. Was there anything in those statements that particularly engaged your interest or attention?
A: The strategic plan is an excellent document. It's a launching pad for many of the things that are extremely important for a school system. It focuses on student achievement. What I need to do as a superintendent is to make sure everyone in the educational community understands the strategic plan, and that includes the community at large. Through this process, we will develop measurable outcomes that we can monitor and communicate to the public and that will guide us to high levels of student achievement - that go beyond any of the expectations that current federal and state guidelines are demanding.
Q: Outside of school, what might Missoula see you interested in?
A: My wife (Susan) and I love to be outdoors. Today I had the opportunity to go up to Seeley Lake, and the countryside was absolutely beautiful. We enjoy walking and hiking, and I love to fish. I haven't fly-fished. I'm looking forward to learning how to do that. I've had a few offers already which I'm hoping I can take advantage of. I love puttering around the house. I love to read. My wife likes to paint.
Q: MCPS has a very veteran teaching staff. That provides a great deal of institutional experience and a challenge as people retire. What's your experience in that situation?
A: You're always going to experience people retiring. What you have to do is make sure your bench is strong - that you hire the best and brightest. I know that's been the practice here and I want to continue to do that. Regardless where the teachers come from that we hire in the future, my hope is that we have our own academy that trains teachers and principals in what our expectations are in terms of quality. That's something I would like to see in the future.
Q: What would you consider your top strength and your top weakness?
A: My ability to bring people together toward a common focus would be my biggest strength. Setting high expectations and focusing on those high expectations and getting the job done, that goes beyond what people expected us to accomplish. Another strength would be my ability to delegate and trust people to do the job.
I think at times I can get a little impatient. I do some self-talk that sometimes things take time. I've been working on that for many years in creating a balance.
When you've been in a field over 30 years and you're my age, you come to a balance with your weaknesses and your strengths. I feel pretty comfortable with myself.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.