Editor's Note: Each year, The Chronicle Editorial Board honors a Person of the Year for their exceptional work completing their job duties or their performance in the community outside of their employment. This year, the board chose Centralia School District Superintendent Dr. Lisa Grant for her work in stabilizing and moving the district forward.
Finding a successful strategy that helps students learn in a classroom is a win for any teacher.
But a classroom is one strand in the tapestry of a school, just as a school is one part of a district.
The excitement and challenge of influencing student learning on a systemic level is what drew Dr. Lisa Grant, the superintendent of Centralia School District and The Chronicle’s Person of the Year, to the world of school administration.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘OK, I can make this work in my classroom,’ but to get every classroom in a school working together like that is just kind of exponentially more powerful in the outcomes for kids. That intrigued me. And I like a good challenge,” Grant said.
Grant certainly had a challenge waiting for her in the Centralia School District when she started as superintendent in July 2020. At the time, the district was not only struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was facing a $11.8 million deficit and had two recent levy proposals fail on the ballot, soon to be followed by a third.
It took the teamwork of Centralia teachers, staff, school board and community to build the district up to a place that better supports and celebrates learning, Grant said. And while Grant’s leadership and dedication to Centralia’s students made her worthy of the Person of the Year title, she said the title isn’t hers alone.
“It’s a team effort here in Centralia, which is one of the things I love. So this honor is really, to me, an honor for our team and their hard work,” she said.
The Centralia School District has more work to do to become the best version of itself for its students, Grant said, “but we have a team willing to do that work. To me, you can accomplish anything when you’re doing that.”
From Teacher to Administrator
Originally from Beaverton, Oregon, Grant completed her undergraduate in special education at Gonzaga University and held her first teaching position at Twality Middle School in Tigard, Oregon.
She later moved to the Seattle area and taught special education at a middle school in Fife. It was there that her principal suggested Grant consider becoming a principal herself.
“It’s fun to see the change and growth of kids in a classroom. And then you start thinking, ‘Oh, I could do this in a building,” she said.
That suggestion from her principal, plus the support of some strong mentors in her life, pushed her to enroll in a master’s in education leadership program at University of Washington.
From there, she became principal of Snoqualmie Elementary School before moving with her husband to Florida, where she worked as a building principal and executive director of special education at a school district with 100,000 students.
The couple stayed in Florida for about 15 years before deciding to move to Centralia, where Grant’s in-laws lived.
“Part of the purpose of us moving back was to be closer to family, but also to help take care of them,” she said. “We weren't sure when we first moved here, but it's such a beautiful community. We love it.”
Grant had never seen herself as a superintendent, but when she saw the position was vacant at the Mossyrock School District, she went for it.
“I applied thinking, ‘Well, I love working and I need (a job),” she said with a laugh.
The job turned out to be an incredibly fun experience for her.
“If you think in a school, you’re working on the systems and the work in a school; but then in a district you get to do that on a district level … I think I have the best job ever,” she said.
With Grant working in Mossyrock and her husband working in Olympia, the two lived in Centralia and commuted daily for five years.
“When Centralia opened up, we lived in Centralia and had really fallen in love with this community and living here. And so I applied and lo and behold, here I am,” she said.
Centralia School District
Now in her third year as superintendent of the Centralia School District, Grant still believes she has “the best job.”
“I honestly feel privileged to have this job. I love it,” she said, “I am thankful for it and thankful for our team and the amazing people I get to work with every day to make all of this happen.”
When asked what work she was proudest of at the Centralia School District, Grant spoke of improving communication and teamwork between district staff, the school board and the community.
“Seeing the way people are working together, starting to see a shift in how people are collaborating, I think we’ve improved our communication, both with our staff (and) within our community,” she said.
With Grant’s help, the Centralia School District has fostered strong support from the City of Centralia, the Centralia Community Foundation and Centralia College in recent years, all with the goal of making Centralia a place where people want to live, work and raise their children.
“The stronger we are as a school district, I think the stronger we can help contribute to this community and its strength. I think it’s integral. And then that means we’re serving our children,” Grant said.
Grant’s job as a superintendent, she said, is to put systems in place that support teachers and district staff so they have what they need to do their very best work with kids.
Some of those systems were in place before she started as superintendent in 2020, “but I think they weren’t all working together,” she said, noting some “frustration and some tension” throughout the district.
“I think we’re beginning to get through that by the work of everyone working together,” she said, adding, “I just see such tremendous potential for what we can do and become. I’m excited for that.”
In addition to the academic and behavioral improvement goals Grant regularly sets with the school board, Grant’s personal goal is to make the Centralia School District the “exemplar district in our state,” she said.
For her, that means, “no matter what factors are happening, that we are doing things that serve children well. In life, I think we’re here to serve. My job is to serve this community, this district and really, though it’s indirect, the kids.”
Her life outside of work is one still motivated by serving the community through her church and through Twin Cities Rotary.
She always leaves time for fun, though, and enjoys spending time running, hiking and riding ATVs with her husband and son.
Work keeps her busy, but she has a good support system in place, she said.
And whenever she’s having a bad day, Grant said all she needs to do to feel better is to walk into a classroom.
“They (the kids) are such a joy. They’re such hope for our future, when you see them,” she said.