Hostage Negotiator becomes Superintendent
Bill Keim is not your typical superintendent. He dropped out of college his first time around. He traveled the Middle East to help children and then operated an orphanage in Bethlehem. He even helped negotiate the release of American hostages in Iraq before the Persian Gulf war.
An unassuming person, the 51-year-old pursued teaching in between travels and became top man about two years ago at Mercer Island School District in Washington state, a district of five schools with about 4,200 students.
"It isn't readily apparent that he has this unusual background," says Mary Lindquist, president of the Mercer Island Education Association. "He's a very quiet person. But what I've observed over time is that once Bill begins to speak, he quickly takes over."
Among the biggest challenges for Keim has been dealing with a community divided between the teachers' and the community's perception of academic effectiveness, says Michael Soltman, associate superintendent of instructional services. Parents, he notes, had high expectations of academics and test scores, while kids were under a lot of stress.
The divide certainly did not daunt Keim.
"One of the tasks any superintendent has is to learn about the culture of the district," says Keim. "A [big part] of any superintendent's world is dealing with problems ... that are fairly difficult and have a lot of emotion around them."
When speaking about making the move from principal to superintendent, Keim says, "I was interested in a role where I could have an impact on the whole district, rather than just on one building. I felt I had some skills that would help in that."
Keim put together a team to study how the high school stacked up to other highperforming schools across the nation and hired an assessor to look at test performance data. He led the district's creation of a five-year strategic plan that included specific goals and deadlines.
The district's objectives included having all students graduate and ensuring that the percentage of 10th graders attaining mastery in state reading, writing, math and listening tests increase by 5 percent annually, reaching 85 percent by 2006 and 95 percent by 2008.
"He was able to get the confidence of the board and the community and create a plan that was based on real information," Soltman says.
Soltman says in Keim's interview for the superintendent post Keim told him he had a deep keel in stormy waters. "That certainly is true," he concludes.
Keim has also steered the district toward investigating the worthiness of a gifted program. Some parents argue gifted students should not be sorted out, while others believe gifted students are bored in regular classrooms. A committee of teachers, administrators and parents studied the issue and recommended that the district develop a more coordinated program to serve gifted students.
"I'm remaining open to the process," Keim says. "The bottom line for me is that whatever we do we have to make sure it's meeting the needs of ... students."
Lindquist adds that Keim has also given teachers extra time to prepare for new curricula changes. Demands on teachers continue to increase, so Keim implemented early dismissal on 11 Mondays during the year to give teachers more time to learn the new curriculum and align it with state standards and the strategic plan.
"I enjoy the variety of challenges and unique opportunity to support what is going on in the classroom," Keim says. "I think you can have an impact with many more students [as superintendent]. It's not as deep or personal [as being a teacher], but it's broader."
As his two-year anniversary looms close, Keim won't say if his itch for traveling again is near. "I really enjoy being here and I think we have a great staff," he says. "And it's beginning to feel like home."
Angela Pascopella, firstname.lastname@example.org, is associate features editor.