Janel Keating Hambly retiring; Scott Harrison to take over as White River schools superintendent

While she’s leaving the district office, Keating Hambly will be sticking around the area.

White River School District Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly will retire at the end of this school year, to be replaced by Deputy Superintendent Dr. Scott Harrison, both educators confirmed April 21.

Keating Hambly discussed her retirement during a Thursday Buckley Kiwanis Club meeting and had made the decision official as early as April 15, according to an email from the district.

She passes the reigns on July 1 to Dr. Harrison, who was selected by the school board of directors.

Harrison is “an outstanding leader and talented educator,” Keating Hambly said, and someone to whom she is “honored” to pass the torch. He has served as deputy superintendent since July 2020.

Transitioning to Dr. Harrison also means avoiding a lengthy and potentially expensive outside search process.

“I get to toss my keys to Scott,” Keating Hambly said with a laugh. “I’m proud we had a succession plan in place.”

In an interview, Keating Hambly called her self “absolutely blessed” to have worked with the community, staff and school board: “I have experienced amazing things there that people go through their entire career and never experience.”

While she’s leaving the district, Keating Hambly will be sticking around the area. She’s building a home locally with her husband Jay Hambly and plans to spend more time with her family. In the meantime, she plans to continue sharing her insights with school districts around the country, according to her retirement email. Keating Hambly is the author of four books on education and leadership, with more on the way.

Keating Hambly has worked in teaching for more than 35 years, but her time in the White River School District began in 1998, when she moved to the area to become principal at Mountain Meadow Elementary.

In 2006, Keating Hambly moved into district administration as the deputy superintendent and director of student learning. She moved up to superintendent in 2011.

In the 11 years since, the district embarked on a massive voter-approved bond project to renovate nearly all of its schools and facilities, launched an early learning center and passed its first technology levy.

But the last two years have tested Keating Hambly, and educators around the country, in an entirely new way.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw schools across the country against numerous, often competing challenges: How do you keep kids and staff from getting sick while keeping them in class? How do you balance the needs and wants of often-disagreeing parents? And in the meantime, how do you juggle the more mundane mayhem that comes with managing thousands of still-maturing kids?

“The last two years have been difficult,” she said, though Keating Hambly said she has “tremendous hope” for their student’s success.

The school district had “terrific systems in place,” she said, and the fortitous timing of the technology levy meant students had the laptops and classroom software needed to learn from home in time for the initial wave of distance learning.

“That really set us up,” she said. “School closed on Friday and students were learning online Monday morning. That made a huge difference.”

She also credited the district for taking a leadership role in finding ways to bring kids back to the classroom safely. White River was one of three school districts that took part in Pierce County’s school-based testing pilot program last year, which sought to give small, rural school districts a chance to experiment with bringing kids back to in-person class.

The upshot: Tacoma-Pierce County Health heralded the program a success, applauding the districts that participated and summarizing that the results “(give) us confidence there will be opportunities across Pierce County for more students to be back in school for in-person education.”

The lesson Keating Hambly took away from it all is that school leaders have to collaborate — and go to bat for their kids — to survive.

For example: “There’s no way we’d get our kids back to school without (the Buckley Fire Department),” which helped the district with COVID-19 testing, she said. “I can text (fire chief) Eric Skogen at midnight and he will be ready to help me by the morning.”

Communicating frankly with Pierce County and the Governor’s Office allowed the school district to advocate aggressively for the students, Keating Hambly said.

So in other words: “Pick up the phone, be vulnerable, and ask for help. None of us had all the answers, but we didn’t sit back and wait.”