When Dan Winter first drove through Montesano with his son two years ago, he took him past the classic wooden grandstands at Rottle Field.
“I remember talking about him playing on that field someday and us watching from there,” Winter recalled.
Winter has been quick to adopt the town as home, and when the grandstands burned, he was as devastated as many who grew up on Grays Harbor. At a school board meeting days after the fire, he was choked up talking about the outpouring of support from all over the county, and even a month later says it’s still hard to look at the pictures.
“It was tough to watch it burn,” he said.
Winter’s tenure so far has been marked by that level of commitment and engagement, from making the time to talk with students to supporting his staff to making the best of state requirements and regulations.
Getting into education
Winter took over leadership of the district the same year Stephanie Klinger became principal of Simpson Elementary.
“We kind of started the year off together,” she said. Klinger had spent 10 years teaching in the district, and Winter was new in town.
“We were able to bounce ideas off each other, and I could ask him questions and advice and … I always knew the advice I was getting was equitable, logical and what was best for kids. And he’s got a great sense of humor and personality, which makes it really easy to work with him,” Klinger said.
Winter hadn’t always been in education. Through high school he had wanted to be a teacher, following both his parents — his mother was an elementary school teacher and his father was superintendent of an Educational Service District.
Even though he loved English and earned his bachelor’s degree in the subject at Eastern Washington University, he found himself working in sales after graduation.
His brother and sisters went into teaching as well, although his sister also had a side-trip into sales. After a few years, the luster wore off for Winter.
“A couple of years in sales and being around family at holidays … I realized what I was doing was not rewarding at all,” Winter said.
He began his teaching career in Veneta, Ore., teaching high school English. While not every day was ideal, Winter quickly found the work more fulfilling than making sales.
Around that time, the Baz Luhrman film adaptation “Romeo + Juliet” was released, and Winter recalls with a smile occasionally catching students slipping up and revealing themselves by referring to Leonardo DiCaprio in their discussion of the play they supposedly read.
Moving to Monte
Winter met his wife, Lyndsie, while coaching at a basketball camp. Her sister was also helping out, and when Lyndsie came to pick her up one day, “I say it was love at first sight,” Winter said.
The couple went from Ridgefield to Boise to Shelton, where Winter held his first superintendent’s job. He hadn’t given much thought to going on to administration when he first went into teaching, but it became a natural progression. There wasn’t any pressure despite his dad’s administrative career, Winter said, but when he went to a workshop for future administrators, it felt like the right fit.
“The more I got into it, the more I realized that’s where I wanted to go,” he said. “I heard from teacher friends, ‘Oh, you’re going to miss the kids. You’re only going to interact with kids in trouble,’” he recalled. It wasn’t nearly so narrow, he found, but he also enjoyed working with kids who were having trouble.
“Sometimes they just need someone to listen to them,” Winter said.
In Montesano, he works with students involved in leadership and other school activities and visits classes and lunchrooms. He actually interacts with more students now than as a teacher, he said.
Klinger said students react very well to Winter, and many kids at Simpson know him more as Sam’s dad than the superintendent. His daughter, Addie, also goes to school in the district.
“He’s very present in all the schools, he makes it a point to come by,” she said.”Every time he’s here he makes that effort to get down and talk with the kids and see what they’re doing. So now they know him as both roles, which is neat.”
Klinger remembered shortly after Winter joined the district, two teachers were planning a flash mob during the fifth-grade talent show — an apparently spontaneous, choreographed dance. Winter was happy to join in the fun.
“They all popped up from the crowd and started dancing, and he came to practice and learned the routine,” Klinger said.
And as it turned out, he had the moves.
“He’s a really good dancer,” Klinger said with a laugh. “I don’t know how many parents commented on meeting him or seeing him for the first time, ‘He’s such a good dancer.’ We were impressed with his moves since he’s a taller guy.”
Joining in and being a part of his community was a big part of what Winter was looking for when he decided to come to Montesano. An Olympia native, he had often visited his grandparents in Hoquiam growing up and had been to Monte for basketball events as a coach.
“We were really looking for some place we could raise our kids and be part of the community,” Winter said.
In Shelton, the K-8 district didn’t utilize his experience with high schools, and it was farther from family. So far, Montesano has been everything he’s hoped for and more.
“We felt good about moving here but it’s exceeded expectations,” he said.
Challenges and community
The past two years haven’t been without struggles. Students, staff and families have been left reeling from two student suicides and the death of one of the district’s teachers. Countywide, five teens total took their lives within a year.
Winter noted that the way to healing from those tragedies has been fairly similar to other hardships: The community pulls together.
“Just like with the grandstands, the community wants to support not just the district but each other,” Winter said.
In the case of the suicides, a group of teens got together to talk about youth suicide and Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Services coordinated with state agencies to host a speaker on the subject in March.
In September, the Rottle Field grandstands burned to the ground. The cause of that fire is still unknown.
Winter remembers watching the fire with a mixture of anger and sadness, he said, standing in a cluster of staff without much talking. Many Monte residents could see the blaze from their homes and came for a closer look. The crowd was strangely quiet, but the very next day, the outpouring of support for the district and its students began.
Superintendents from Elma, Aberdeen and Hoquiam called by 8 a.m. the following morning to offer their fields, Winter said. Calls flooded the office from people and businesses looking for ways to help. One business, Hands-on-Health, raised $3,400 in just more than a day of taking donations for banners to be displayed at the school. Pasha Stevedoring at the Port of Grays Harbor has also donated.
Bulldog alumni from all over the country called to show support and offer their help, too.
“It helped ease the negativity and sadness,” Winter said of the support.
The county fairgrounds donated bleachers so students in fall sports could have at least one last home game.
“We actually got more out there than we thought we would,” Winter said.
Varsity and junior varsity soccer both had games on the field with the temporary bleachers, and after a scheduling change, the football team had its homecoming game at home Oct. 19.
It’s hard to imagine a better celebration for a team that didn’t know if it would truly have a homecoming: Despite the pouring rain, the Bulldogs trounced Rainier in a 70-0 blowout.
Now the district is hoping to rebuild in time for next fall’s sports season, and will hold community meetings to let everyone have a voice in what the new grandstands might look like. McGranahan Architects of Tacoma was selected by the school board from a field of seven applicants to design the new grandstands.
There’s no firm plan yet on what that might be, but most everything is on the table. The district’s insurance has been nothing but helpful, Winter said, and they’ll have at least the features the old grandstand had. There’s always the option of running a levy and taking the opportunity to expand, but Winter said with the economy still struggling, it didn’t seem like the right time.
“We definitely want the community to be part of that decision,” Winter said. “I want to make sure it’s something the community can be proud of.”
One of the toughest projects Winter has tackled has been starting to implement teacher evaluations, a new state requirement. It’s also one of the things he says he’s most proud of.
There has been a lot of wariness from staff about the evaluations, and many teachers across the state opposed the measure before it was passed. Winter and Klinger both said it didn’t help matters that Gov. Chris Gregoire was so vocal about its use in getting rid of bad teachers.
“Instantly it puts teachers on the defensive, ‘You’re trying to get rid of me,’” Klinger noted. “It’s really (Winter’s) leadership that’s changing that perception. … What he’s doing is trying to find as many opportunities as possible to talk with our staff and indoctrinate our staff into this new process.”
Winter said it was already possible to get rid of bad teachers if needed, and the real value of the evaluations in Montesano will be to make good teachers better.
“It’s really clear as you walk through our classrooms that our teachers care about kids,” Winter said. “This is a pretty big change and hopefully going to be a positive change.”
Klinger praised Winter’s efforts in easing anxiety about the process and his commitment to finding a system that works well for Monte. He’s set up four trainings through the school year for staff with representatives from each school at each training, and one of the two monthly administrative meetings has been devoted to the evaluation system.
“We’re talking, we’re in the loop, and that way we can disseminate that information to our staff,” Klinger said.
She also said Winter’s support comes in many little ways as needed, starting with really listening to what everyone — students, staff and teachers — has to say.
“What I appreciate about Dan is he really listens. so when you’re talking to him … it’s really thought out what his view is,” Klinger said.
Winter has been particularly helpful at Simpson, Klinger said, in his help getting two grants to buy iPads. Now, all fourth-grade classes have a set and there’s a class set that can be checked out from the library.
“We really wanted to put more technology into the hands of our students, because that’s the world they live in outside of school,” she said. “He was very supportive of that. Without that support, I think it would have been really hard to secure those grants.”
The results have already been positive — kids are excited to use the iPads, often going home and telling their parents about the work they did with them that day.
“We’re trying to teach students this is a tool, just like a paper and a pencil, for you to learn,” Klinger said.
With all the ups and downs and surprises of leading the school district, Winter says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“There’s not a day I go home thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ I look forward to coming to work.”
Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933 or at firstname.lastname@example.org