Justin (Tim) Mills became the superintendent of the Bellevue School District last July. The former superintendent of the North Clackamas School District in Oregon also served as the superintendent of the Mesa Valley County and Brush public school districts, both in Colorado. Mills holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Colorado and a doctor of education degree from Nova Southeastern University.
Why is the Bellevue School District consistently ranked by Newsweek to be among the best districts in our nation?
Historically, Bellevue was one of the first districts to encourage more students to take advanced placement (AP) classes. Last year 91 percent of our graduating class took AP classes, which signals a very rigorous curriculum. The pass rate was 72 percent.
Bellevue supports this effort. The City Council, business leaders, legislators and parents want the school district to be very good — and it attracts people to come here.
Is there a downside to this?
Bellevue is changing demographically, and we’re seeing an increased number of children coming from families who are struggling financially, and that can have an impact. But I will say this: If there is a place where it can happen for all kids, Bellevue is the place.
The late Mike Riley, a former BSD superintendent, made sure AP classes were accessible to all students. Do you share his vision?
Absolutely — access is incredibly important. There is a current debate in school districts that not all children want to or plan to go to college. My response to that is that it is not for the district to decide — it’s a choice for the students or family. The district needs to be sure that we’re preparing students for what they want: military, college or apprenticeship program.
We should not be holding anyone back; the system should allow all students who are well prepared to move forward. There used to be a belief that AP was for certain kids. The reality is that AP should be for all kids. It makes a big difference in the number of students getting into some of the most prestigious colleges, but more importantly, it gives kids greater options and choices.
There is a big focus today on social and emotional learning. How will you implement this in your schools?
Bellevue already has started a lot of work on this concept of safe and civil schools. We want kids to feel safe and secure, and move forward in their learning. Some kids come with very traumatic backgrounds, and our staff needs to be sensitive to that and aware of how to best to direct kids and their families to the support they need.
What are the most pressing issues in your district?
Making sure that every child feels that he or she can be successful. There is a belief outside of Bellevue that this district does not have issues around poverty or doesn’t have to think about incredible diversity and different cultures. The challenge is embracing the great diversity in the district and keeping every student connected to learning.
How have you been spending most of your time?
Talking with lots of community groups and having many individual conversations. In the first month of school I have been in over 300 classrooms. It’s really been a lot about listening.
Taking a hard look at equity is the other piece that’s important to me. Over 51 percent of our students come from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds. We added a new position, director of equity, whose responsibility is to guide and shape our work by working with parents and administration to create an equity plan. We can reach out to every one of our children; celebrate the richness in terms of this community and diversity.
What has been surprising to you when visiting schools and classrooms?
Delightfully surprising is our school principals and assistant principals. They see themselves as needing to have a very direct connection to instruction in our district.
I am seeing teachers that are doing incredible work with students and I am seeing great consistency. Recently, I was at a Title I elementary school. A family was being evicted from their apartment and having a very difficult time. The school had an incredible commitment to reach out to help this family, and there was the very highest level of instruction going on in a beautiful building. One hour later, I was in one of the highest socio-economic schools. If I look at these two different parts of our district, I see the same commitment to high quality both in the building as well as in the instruction. That is something we can celebrate and be proud of.
How will your district find and maintain high-quality teachers?
We need to recognize our current teaching staff and provide the support they need. We need high-quality development for teachers so they can improve in their craft. Teachers have to buy in and think, “This is going to make me a better teacher.”
We must continue to look at the diversity and ethnicity of teachers. We’re a changing demographic in many ways, and one objective is to recruit a variety of nationalities. It makes a difference to have kids see teachers that look like them. It’s exciting to work with kids from such varied cultural backgrounds. We talk about a global economy — our children are growing up and living in that right now.
Tell me something about your programming.
Bellevue has a great spectrum of learners. I have been impressed that Bellevue has something specific for gifted learners with high cognitive ability. Lots of places have a hard time developing curriculum for them, and here there has been a unique commitment to proving what is needed for gifted kids. We’ll continue to build on that. It’s a moral obligation to ensure that every day each child is learning in every classroom.
If we can make that happen then we are doing great things.