Many of us have experienced the sensation of coming full circle — landing somewhere familiar, a place we’ve been but with an experience and understanding we lacked before. I experienced that on Jan. 19, looking everywhere and finding the answer right in front of me.
Along with three other board directors of the Bellevue School Board (the fifth director having recused herself), we selected Dr. Kelly Aramaki to be the next superintendent of the Bellevue School District. It marks only the second time, in Bellevue School District’s more than 100-year history, of selecting a superintendent from within.
We knew Dr. Aramaki when we started our search, a former teacher and executive director, as well as assistant superintendent in our district. We knew of his exceptional training and work on multiple critical areas, including student instruction, well-being and inclusion of students with special needs. We didn’t know if he would apply. But as our district was at a critical point, our board committed to taking the time to look carefully, with a 360 view, to find the best superintendent by conducting a national search, one rooted in our values and in the aspirations and hopes of our community. With our community’s input, we developed an ideal profile, hired a top search firm and departed from our past practice of sharing the names of our top three finalists, in order to optimize attracting the highest-level talent. We succeeded.
As we assessed, one by one, approximately 30 candidates, Dr. Aramaki slowly emerged. No matter which lens we applied — expertise in classroom instruction, innovative curriculum ideas, a track record in delivering material outcomes for students, commitment and respect for student well-being, or understanding education as a service to one’s community — it was hard not to be impressed with the mirror between his strengths and passions and what our district needs right now. We found ourselves converging on the candidate who literally grew up in our own schools as a student and graduate of Newport High School, before starting his career in education.
But there was something more. It was also hard not to feel his joy, which came through beyond his own words. It was reflected in every letter, reference, unsolicited comment and feedback from our community panels. Equal parts love and commitment. Love for teaching, love for students, love for learning. And commitment — to our students, to our district and to our Bellevue community, always considering how to make our education work for all, judging our success through how we serve those with the least and those most marginalized.
Bellevue continues to be known and seen by many as a city that is awash in wealth. But it masks the reality that more than 20% of our students — almost 4,000 — live in poverty, and that we have welcomed more than 450 students experiencing homelessness.
Dr. Aramaki’s acute appreciation and commitment to our city, and the full range of challenges and opportunities our district faces, stands within a unique perspective perhaps only he could have. He is a fifth generation Japanese American, whose family moved to Bellevue in 1900. They developed, piece by piece, a large swath of farmland in north Bellevue, committing to its development and that of Bellevue. Dr. Aramaki’s grandfather, father, great aunts and uncles, siblings and wife all attended Bellevue schools. Now his daughter does. It’s remarkable that his history bookends the incarceration of Dr. Aramaki’s family in two different camps during World War II: Tule Lake in California, and later, Minidoka in Idaho. His grandparents got married at Minidoka. When they returned in 1945, after being released from the incarceration camps, Dr. Aramaki’s family discovered that everything on their family farm, which had been on a small lake, known as Lake Bellevue, had been stolen and almost everything lost. They stayed in Bellevue, eventually selling their farm, and continued their investment in their lives here.
Jan. 19 was our final day of interviews. To keep our commitment of confidentiality to our finalists, we didn’t meet in a Bellevue school district building. We conducted our interviews in an office park on Lake Bellevue. Today it looks more like a pond than a lake. As I called the next day to relay our unanimous decision to select him, Dr. Aramaki mentioned how impactful the interview experience had been. Being interviewed for superintendent felt momentous, but it was made more poignant by having the interviews take place on Lake Bellevue, the very place where his family farm had once been. Full circle. Back to the place his family had started, excited to commit to building and investing once again, with his infectious hope and optimism for a brighter future.
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