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Tough Act to Follow
Mark Wenzel

photo of mark wenzelMethow Valley School District departing superintendent Mark Wenzel. Photo by Solveig Torvik

When Mark Wenzel was hired as superintendent of the Methow Valley School District five years ago, his marching orders from the school board were: raise the bar and close the gap, says Mary Anne Quigley, the former board chair.

“We set the district’s goals,” says Quigley, who still serves on the board. But it’s up to the professionals, the teachers and superintendent, to raise the bar on student academic achievement and close the achievement gap for students struggling to learn, she reminds. And during Wenzel’s tenure, impressive gains have been made in reaching those goals, say the people who hired him.

“Superintendent Wenzel leaves behind an energetic culture of teaching and learning,” says board member Frank Kline, citing Wenzel’s emphasis on professional teacher development and “a shared leadership approach to education.”

“He does many things, and he does them all well,” adds board member Gary Marchbank. “He is an outstanding superintendent and will be difficult to replace.” But by the first week of June, the board expects to have chosen a new superintendent to replace Wenzel, 48, who has been hired as school superintendent in Anacortes.

“They are big shoes to fill,” Quigley agrees.  “But what a blessing to step in and have things in such good shape. Most of the things he set in motion will continue of their own momentum.”

“He was hired because he has incredible communications skills,” she adds, citing Methow Pride, the professional-caliber school newsletter that Wenzel wrote and produced, and such innovations as the exit interviews with graduating seniors to obtain feedback for educational improvement.

Quigley credits Wenzel’s communication skills with raising morale among students and teachers. “I know he tries to get into all the classrooms and spends a lot of time talking to students.” She also praises the professional communication and cooperation he fostered among teachers. “We made a home run on that.”

photoOne school board member credits outgoing superintendent Mark Wenzel with raising morale among both students and teachers at the Methow Valley schools, and praises the professional communication and cooperation he fostered among teachers.

“He’s been a whiz with finances,” Quigley adds, noting that even when budgets were tight, he found a way to add courses to the curriculum: Advanced Placement history, speech and debate, welding, video production and Chinese. “His management of finances has really been a boon to us.”

Biomedical sciences and junior high robotics and statistics will be added next year, according to Wenzel, and Advanced Placement calculus the following year.

Quigley says Wenzel’s most significant accomplishment is the improvement in teaching and learning that’s taken place at the elementary school, which is starting to win academic awards. Wenzel’s hiring of Anne Andersen, “who has great wisdom and experience in literacy” as instructional coach was key to those improvement, she adds.

“I applied for the position here because I had read about Mark,” says Andersen, former principal of the Crosswinds Arts and Science magnet school in St. Paul, Minn., and more recently principal of the International School in Trondheim, Norway. She’s a writing consultant affiliated with the National Writing Project. “He was a communicator and he believed in supporting good teaching.”

Wenzel also hired a math expert from the University of Washington who has been in district classrooms for the last three years helping math teachers improve their teaching skills.

“This district has an amazing staff really that compares favorably to any other district in the state,” says Wenzel. “They’re very willing to take on new challenges.” He has high praise for how well the school board, staff and community have worked together during his time here.

Things still needing attention, in Wenzel’s view, include keeping the focus on student character development and creating a positive school culture plus more emphasis on early childhood education.

photoThe school district adopted the 5D teaching and learning framework during Mark Wenzel's time as superintendent.

Wenzel says he’s pleased that the adoption by the district two years ago of the Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning (5D) framework has given teachers much more “specific, evidence-based” tools and measurements for improving their own teaching skills. The challenge is not to have such mandated assessments and frameworks “take the joy” out of learning and teaching but to “balance the art and science of teaching,” he says.

The 5D approach follows the contentious Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which threatened to result in politically disastrous student failure rates. The WASL approach essentially has been jettisoned by the state legislature, morphing into a less test-driven approach called Measurement of Student Progress, which specifies new “common core” academic standards that students will be tested on.

Meanwhile lawmakers also mandated that districts choose one of three approaches for evaluating teaching effectiveness. Starting next year, teachers throughout the state will be evaluated on how well they meet the teaching standards prescribed in the frameworks chosen by their districts.

This means the board will be looking not only for a superintendent with good communications skills but one able to carry on the 5D teaching approach the district has implemented, says Quigley, who adds:

“I just feel like Mark and Julie [artistic director of the Merc Playhouse] have been the most tremendous assets to our community. They leave us better off than when they came.”


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