New principal at Stewart Middle School

Janet Gates-Cortez, initially co-principal at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma, Washington since September 2011, officially became the sole principal this past week. Janet shared what she thinks of her new position, “I love it. I’ve always been drawn to students that haven’t had a voice (“at risk students”). I think part of the opportunity is to show kids what they’re capable of and I believe education is the key to open a lot of doors; a lot of our kids wouldn’t have. Being in this setting puts you right on the middle of kids that aren’t that confident and teaches them that they’re capable of learning. Sometimes their behaviors get in the way of staying in school. I’m really working with staff to engage students. “Steam school” or “A-stem” is infusing science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. It’s really looking at what it is that our nation needs in terms of job skills sense and how do we keep kids coming to school and preventing them from dropping out?” Janet shared the best thing about her career, “Getting support at the district level in terms of research and best practices, and collaborating and working in other schools in regards to what’s working, and getting to know students and build their relationships, and staff and their strengths and really focus on the fact that we’re a steam improvement grant school.”

Janet has been working in the Tacoma schools since January 1984, was hired in the school district in December of 1986, and her career up until Stewart was in special education, working with programs with behavior and emotional needs. Janet shared about her career, “I originally started out in adult probation and the mental health field. I worked with children and families, and was a cross cultural specialist for agencies and fell into education from the community agency aspect. I got interested. How do we really prevent issues from escalating to how can we intervene at an early age and that’s how I got interested in education.” Janet has a BA in sociology/psychology, a Masters of social work with a minor graduate in Business Administration, has her program administrator and principal credentials, and is an independent clinician in the field of social work, and has a state license to do private practice. Janet explained, “With social work, I was really trained to look at social systems and look at the community and district resources and bring it together to meet the needs of the kids. I’ve done some private school teaching, but private schools don’t require a teacher’s certificate. I’ve really been in school for 28 years providing leadership.”

Janet was born in Alaska and an army brat. She’s moved to Fort Lewis three different times, went to St. Martin’s University in Lacey, University of Washington, and then obtained her principal credentials at Pacific Lutheran. When asked three words to describe herself and why, she replied, “I think I’m a listener, assessor, and I’m focused. I think there’s a skill with really being in the moment with whoever you’re with and giving your full attention in this busy world. Because of my training in the mental health field, there’s an art to listening and hearing what someone’s really saying with and without their words and to check that out further. I’ve been trained as a mediator, what are you working towards? What’s a shared goal? I think you’re also forming relationships and moving forward. I love data that’s why I consider myself an “assessor” kinda gauging where you’re going and whether it’s behavioral, academic, or committee how you get feedback is it really effective to see what’s working and what’s not. It’s not necessarily starting all over, but building upon that. You can bring in other people that can bring other people to bring different perspectives. I’m focused because I’m very intentional in terms of the work that needs to be done and understanding systems and people in the change process and very clear about expectations there are and providing training and support.”

Janet shared who she is as a person, “My mom’s a war bride that’s from Japan. I started school overseas and ended up going back in middle school. My dad was in the army and I was in 17 different schools before I graduated from high school. I saw this as a great opportunity to travel. Since the military was set up for moving in and out throughout the year, it’s an easy transition because it was set up where you can fit in no matter if you didn’t start at the beginning of the school year. I’m taking that experience and resiliency and transferring it here [at Stewart] and looking at what made that difference. I am a professional Japanese dance teacher and have been studying dance since 1983. It’s part of a club, and Tacoma has four Japanese clubs. Our teacher was the first one in the U.S. to give a title to those that didn’t have to perform in front of Japan and she’s 80 years old and retiring soon. She could probably go another 10 years…she’s just awesome.”

Janet even shared a childhood memory that relates to who she is today, “Even when I was little, I always thought of myself as a translator, seeing two worlds and the commonalities between the two worlds. I was raised in a civilian/military and Japanese/European environment and it was mental health/education special education/general education here at Stewart. I see at Stewart how do we take the arts and the practicality of learning and its direct application? How do we pare that with giving students skills to have basic core essential learning’s combined together with data? What’s working and what’s not? And it still can be a creative, engaging, and innovative school with data. Some people see it as one or the other, but really it can be done. We’re trying to be a culturally responsive school; not a separate piece and working with staff and how do we do it? We have staff that are knowledgeable and have the energy and can see the end product. We can try it and tweak it, and share with others in regards to what’s working and what’s not.”

Janet discussed her biggest accomplishment, “Helping kids that may on paper seem to be going down a path that the ending is already “written,” but once that student is individually known and their story is worked along the way you can see their successes. You may not see their turning point these three years, but maybe in five or seven years. Kids that I work with come back and say “I really should’ve done this then” and I have them talk to kids now that are struggling with that. They will say to me, “You know what Mrs. Cortez? My friend needs to come to this school. We have attorneys advocate, but really it’s when kids say that, I feel that’s my biggest accomplishment. We’re really reaching and serving that purpose for them. They can see and trust that they can send their friends here to go to school.”

Janet shared what motivates her, “Seeing that it doesn’t take much; the day to day is a lot of work those moments when a kid or parent will come and say, “You really are having an impact” and the choices they make from that.” Janet explained her long-term and short-term career goals, “The change from “co” to “sole” principal is an adjustment for staff. They were all hired last year under former principal Mr. Ketler. Mr. Ketler was a strong reason why staff chose to come here now he’s transitioning out [he was principal for almost a year and half] and this year we were co/ joint principals and now he’s back. Mr. Ketler’s recognizing this is a change (in the short-term) and also building through the vision that was created and putting the foundation in place as far as what that means, how do we get to that vision? It’s that implementation piece and training of staff on standard based instruction and project based learning. It’s really focusing on how do we use data? And building a team here that’s not all combined with three schools (Mr. Ketler was principal of three schools). Stewart is having its own identity and partnering with the other two schools. It’s different if I have my three and now I’m gonna be in the two. We’re still gonna do a robotics school for SAMI (Science and Math Institute) and SOTA (or TSOTA Tacoma School of Arts) students similar to college project based learning with two teachers and all around direct application and more experiential learning and we’ll partner with SAMI and SOTA. Once a month all three schools have a staff meeting and we do joint training; what will change is the instruction piece. The Department of Education and District Central Administrators perform regional walk throughs and principals come from feeder schools (elementary schools, etc.) and walk through Stewart to find what connections can be made to make it easier for students. It’s really focused since we were in the bottom high percent, what other ways can we assess students while also providing learning along the way.

The Prevention piece is partnering with “Communities that Care” (a coalition formed with safe streets to focus on meeting the needs of Stewart students around the mission of student success, economic, academic, and social success). There’s a four year grant written to try and build upon that with Stewart students in mind. This focuses on student achievement, economic and social success combined. It’s looking at volunteers and looking at research based prevention models what can work in this school? Is it reading? Or tutors? Chaperones working in the community garden together? Or is it having an adult mentor for kids to talk to in and out of school? We also have an agency housed for anybody in the community and they have their own separate entrance after hours. Olive Crest assists with prevention issues for students that have home issues. I had meeting with UW Tacoma in terms of training for staff here and I’m on the Pacific Lutheran University professional educational advisory board and addressing the question: what do principals need (skills to meet youth needs) and I’m on the teacher one for general education and special education at UW Tacoma. We are partnering with university as well; our end product is when teachers come out of the training.”

Janet mentioned her life goals, “To stay healthy. It’d be nice to sleep…it’ll come [Janet laughs]. And to have that balance as things go through phases and keep that perspective in balance. I do have a family at home. I have two kids in high school; one is going off to college. My goal is to take care of me and those that I love and support and still be able to do the work I love.” Janet has a son that’s going off to college. He just turned 18 and currently has three scholarship offers. He wants to study aerospace or patrolling engineering. Janet’s daughter is a sophomore in high school that does Japanese dance, plays clarinet, and is a high achieving student interested in medicine or science.

Janet has a German shepherd lab named “Sitka” and explained how sometimes her dog is known as the “Sitkanator” as that she’s very protective, but she’s a sweetie. Janet commented, “We have had a hedgehog he lived a very long age and a gecko. We had a miracle guppy that lived five years!” Janet attends the Obon Odori Festival in Tacoma and the White River Obon Odori Festival in Auburn with her family every year. The festival honors Japanese ancestors that have passed away. Janet’s husband’s family resides primarily in San Diego, near the Los Angeles area so she travels there with her family every year.

Janet would like to promote the next “Communities that Care” forum that takes place from 3:30 pm to 4:30 pm at Stewart middle school library on Wednesday, April 11, 2012. The purpose of the event is to focus on student achievement for the four year grant process and getting participants in 16 hour training on how to be a volunteer and look at researched based prevention models and study those and pick one area to focus on. Janet explained, “For some, an example would be encouraging sports for students or helping students in the nutrition or arts fields, or after school tutoring. Whatever models are adopted, volunteers will focus on that training and really spearhead those efforts. Those that are interested can visit the district website: essentialelements.org or can just come and enjoy light refreshments.”

By: Carly Calabrese, staff for Tacoma.com