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Katie Brown leading Nooksack Elementary as interim principal

For 15 years Katie Brown drove through the Nooksack Valley Schools community from her home overlooking the valley to her work at the Bellingham School District.

“It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to work in the district I live in,” Brown says. “I overlook the valley and didn’t know the community.” That all changed last year when Brown took on a new role within Nooksack Valley Schools as an ELL advocate/language developer.

It all takes a major step forward this school year, as Brown now holds the interim principal role at Nooksack Elementary following the departure of 10-year principal Cindy Tjoelker.

“It is my dream job,” she says, “it really is. It is the elementary school closest to my home. It couldn’t be more ideal and it seems like everything was moving in this trajectory and everything felt like this is what I need to be doing and this is where I need to be.”

Brown, originally from Vancouver, Washington, has lived in the district but worked for Bellingham Schools the last 15 years. In 2014, while leading a Shuksan Middle School effort in English language learning, was named the OSPI Washington State Teacher of the Year.

“It really brought recognition to a community of people,” she says. “The award wasn’t my award, it was the result of the work I helped build with a group of educators. It was a catalyst for recognition and change made that closed the achievement gap for a group of kids.”

While Brown’s face spread around Bellingham and the education world, she says all the travel and discussion about the award really led her into a greater interest in leadership. She earned her administration credentials and a meeting with a Nooksack Valley Schools teacher led her to discussions with the Nooksack Valley Schools’ bilingual director, Kevin DeVere, and Mark Johnson, superintendent. Those meetings resulted in Brown’s ELL advocate/language developer role for the 2017-18 school year, a district-level position that had her working to strengthen the ELL program for the entire district. She put a focus on the elementary and middle school, working on staff development and family engagement.

Brown started the transition to principal late in this spring. “Katie has her principal’s credentials, but more importantly, she has demonstrated outstanding leadership in the language learner work within our district this year,” says Johnson. “She is bright, articulate, energetic and passionate about success and equity for all children. Katie is a great listener and leaner.”

Johnson says he expects Brown to earn the trust and respect of Nooksack Elementary staff and turn the interim tag of the position into a long run of success.

Earning that trust started right away. Brown spent the final two weeks of the school year working on an entry plan, meeting with every single teacher, classified staff, bus driver and some parents to ask questions and learn about the school. “I was collecting data, looking for themes,” she says. “What is going well, what is special about Nooksack, what do we need to improve on or change?”

During the interviews, Brown asked for interviewees to choose a word that describes what they want the community to think about the school. She collected those responses to help lead the vision of where the school needs to go, with words such as “community,” “family,” “love” and “teamwork” leading the way.

“We are continuing to build a sense of community with all of our kids and families,” she says. “Parent involvement is outstanding and one of the things I am most excited about it. I want to make the school how they envision it.”

Tjoekler, who worked with Brown during the transition, says Brown is a leader. “She has a vision and gets things done,” Tjoelker says. “She is also bringing to our building a new perspective. She is a strong leader and built a lot of trust with much of our staff. It was as good a transition as we could have had.”

Through it all, Brown says the change has proven “completely overwhelming,” all while remaining exciting and terrifying at the same time. “I love this school. I love this community,” Brown says. “And I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to serve in this new role. I am all in.”