Lisa Grant became superintendent of Centralia School District on July 1, 2020 – right in the middle of a double levy failure, international pandemic, and unprecedented school shutdown. Many would balk at this enormous burden, but not Grant. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t believe we could create something special here,” Grant said. “A strong school district helps make a strong city and vice versa. There are ways that we can partner that will benefit all of us.”
Grant starts each day with a strong black cup of coffee and a healthy dose of optimism, fueled by her lifelong passion for education. “My dad would have told you it started when I was in elementary school,” she said. “I was always practicing teaching. Probably around my middle school years, my grandmother volunteered at what was then a residential special education home. I remember going with her and just being fascinated and wanting to do that work. That’s the moment I remember thinking ‘that’s my path’ and I have loved every minute of it since.”
A childhood glimmer of inspiration turned into more than 30 years of professional experience in education. “I have had such a variety of experiences at different levels,” said Grant. “It’s about service. I believe we are on this earth to serve.”
Throughout her career, Grant has served as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, director of professional development, district supervisor of special education, and superintendent. She earned a bachelor’s in special education from Gonzaga, a master’s in education leadership from the University of Washington, and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of South Florida. “My thinking is, each day I get the opportunity to serve students,” Grant said.
The Huskies fan has no qualms about stepping into complicated educational systems. “In Florida, they give letter grades to schools,” Grant said. “And I was asked – appointed, actually; I was told I was going to be principal at a school there. They had earned an F the year before.
“It’s never as simple as people think when they look at that from the outside in. It wasn’t that there weren’t hard-working people there trying to do their best every day. It was a matter of us getting the systems and the right supports in place and delivering instruction that met the needs of our students.”
Grant’s educational philosophy is founded on a strong belief in teamwork and that school districts are often already equipped with the passion and talent they need to thrive. “I remember people coming in and saying, ‘I’m here to fix you’ or ‘We’re here to save you’ and we’d be like, ‘Well, we’re fixing ourselves.’ And we are working on this because we have to own this and figure it out,’” said Grant. Over the next seven years, that school saw dramatic improvement both academically and in the areas of social and emotional health.
After fifteen years of living and working in Florida, Grant and her husband relocated to Centralia to be closer to family. “I hadn’t lived in a smaller town like this,” she said. “The friendliness and the community sense you get when you go to a restaurant; I can’t think of a time at even a grocery store when someone hasn’t started a conversation,” said Grant.
Her first few months have had one clear objective: “Listen, listen, listen, listen and learn as much as you can,” she said.
The limitations of the pandemic have made group forums difficult. However, the new superintendent has held over 100 one-on-one meetings with parents, staff, and community members. “They were so much fun!” she said. “It was fascinating. I just learned so much from listening to people – what was working, and what wasn’t; what is the perception of all those different viewpoints. Everybody brings something different to it.”
The path ahead will be as unique as the Centralia community itself. “Centralia is not the same as Rochester and Chehalis, so we have to look at what will work for us, our students and the needs of our community,” Grant said. “We as a district, as part of my first year’s plan, are going to work on our core vision. What are we about? What is our main area of focus? We want to get really clear on that. So right now, we are working on increasing communication, building trust, and working as a team and reaching out to others in our community. And then to move forward in a strong way, with a strong focus for our students.”
The Centralia School District is currently using a distance learning model to keep students safe and progressing during COVID-19. While this puts extra stress on the teachers and families, it has also highlighted an important strength. “People are really trying to step up and work together,” Grant said. “We are in a place where we have some improvements to make here, but people are willing to do that.”
As soon as schools can safely open to all students, they will. When they do, the district will be better for all it has gone through. “The pride of people in this community and what they want this district to become is really a strength,” said Grant. “Their willingness to help us is another strength. Those are the foundational pieces of some great things to come. You can do anything with that.”
The future is bright for the Centralia School District. “It’s not me, it’s a fabulous team of people really working,” said Grant. “We just need to put all the pieces together, set that direction, and work for it very intentionally. I keep saying this over and over; we will create a strong future for our students, district and community. All of those are important. As challenging as it is right now, it is very exciting.”