After he officially took over as Yelm Community Schools superintendent on July 1, Chris Woods discussed the adventure that lies ahead in his new role.
Woods, who has worked as the chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Thurston County for the past four years, said his first month as superintendent has been positive.
“Really the month of July has been a lot of time here in the office learning, meeting with the staff that’s here all summer, and spending a lot of time getting to know some of our strengths and areas where we can improve,” Woods said. “Now that we’re getting into August, our principals are coming back and the rest of our staff at the district office are, too. We (started) our principal professional development at the (start of August), and August will be full of training for principals and staff.”
As he gets comfortable in a new environment, Woods said he’s thankful to have the opportunity to work in an environment that features great people. He added, throughout the interviewing process for the position, all he heard about from the interview panel and those associated with Yelm Community Schools was how great the people in Yelm are.
“That was confirmed when I met with each one of the principals and asked what was going well, what challenges they face and how I can support them as a superintendent,” Woods said. “One of the things they each pointed out that’s going well was the people. Time and time again, I’ve heard about how great the people in the community are. The most important thing in my career is that I’ve only been successful because of the people I’ve been surrounded by. I’ve worked with some fantastic teams and some very talented people, and that’s no different here. That will be one of the biggest reasons I’ll be successful here, is because of the people.”
Woods added that as he dives into his superintendent role, the community will begin to see that he’s collaborative and open to input from others.
“People will also learn that I have an open door,” Woods said. “If there’s a concern, any questions or people just wanting conversation, I’m more than happy to meet people here or go to them. The only way we can get better is by listening and learning.”
Woods said though Yelm Community Schools has several areas of focus for the upcoming school year, his primary focuses are academic performance measures and creating a positive environment at the schools.
“I think a big area of focus is academic performance measures. As we get further away from COVID and the pandemic, we have more of an opportunity to get back to what we do best, and that is educate our students and prepare them for whatever their plans may be after high school,” Woods said. “Another big piece is creating a culture of belonging … We want to create a place where, if I’m a student in the Yelm School District, it’s a place where I feel like I belong and where I can be successful.”
He noted that the district wants to prioritize the focus on academic measures, while finding out how to meet the “unique needs” of each student.
“How are we assessing what our students need, and how are we adjusting to what our students need? That is a big focus of ours,” Woods said.
The new superintendent also applauded the district’s continuous emphasis on facilities, including the new Southworth Elementary and Yelm Middle schools and the athletic complex upgrades at Yelm High School and YMS.
“Our district has done a fantastic job these past few years with the bond and creating exceptional facilities for our students to learn and compete in athletics,” Woods said. “We’re really excited about the facilities all across the district and what they’re going to provide.”
During his first month as superintendent, Woods said he’s tried to acquaint himself with the community.
“I’ve tried to spend a lot of time here in the community, whether it’s going for a walk and stopping at the student-support facility or bus barn and talking with them or stopping in at Yelm Middle School, where our tech department is housed, and chatting with them,” Woods said. “I’ve tried to get out each day and go for a walk and get to see part of the community and spend more time here.”
Woods praised the Yelm Community Schools Student Superintendent Advisory Council, as well. He acknowledged the work that former-superintendent Brian Wharton put in with Shannon Gubser and other staff to make the advisory council possible.
The council is made up of middle school and high school students. Woods said he was impressed by the council for prioritizing student support for social, emotional and mental health.
“These students made it very clear that they want to provide a resource for all students to access so they know how they can get support and help when they’re feeling anxious or depressed, lost or whatever feelings they’re going through as it relates to challenges in their life,” Woods said. “They wanted to create a place where students could go and immediately find resources.”
He added that the council created a Google Classroom, which will be launched this upcoming school year, to provide resource access to mainly middle school and high school students. The access point will provide a series of links that show students where they can get help, who they can call or where they can go.
“I believe that social emotional and mental health is going to be a big focus for us this year, too, and that was made clear by our students,” Woods said. “I know that some students are struggling, and many are hurting, especially after coming out of the pandemic. We need to provide resources for them. I believe that every one of our students needs to have an adult who they can go to in their building. They need to have their person. If every student in our district feels like they can have a staff member they can go to during their times of need, we’ll be in a really great place as a district.”
Woods added that all work during the upcoming 2023-24 school year will be grounded on building strong relationships and rapport with students.
“Everything that I do, I always try to do it through the lens of what our students need and putting them first,” he said. “That’s why I’m here, and I believe that’s why all of us are here in Yelm Community Schools. We’re here to support our students.”