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Man with the plan: Kent schools continue to change, thrive behind Vargas' leadership

Edward Lee Vargas has served as superintendent of the Kent School District since 2009. Under his watch, the district has received numerous local, state, national and international awards. - Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter
Edward Lee Vargas has served as superintendent of the Kent School District since 2009. Under his watch, the district has received numerous local, state, national and international awards.
— image credit: Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter

Edward Vargas displays all the qualities one might expect of the superintendent of one of the most diverse and complex school districts in the state.

A calm, collected and soft spoken man whose reserved mannerisms belie an unquestionable authority and control.

The veteran administrator arrived in Kent in 2009 and has rapidly changed the school district in his four years of service.

The Washington Association of School Administrators recently awarded Vargas as Superintendent of the Year, but it's not the first time he's been honored for his work on the state level. He also received the same award in 2006 while working in California.

Vargas received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of New Mexico in 1986, and pursued a doctorate from the University of Washington in 1992. It was during his doctoral studies from the UW that he first considered a career as a superintendent.

"I never thought about being a superintendent," said Vargas, choosing his words deliberately. "I was a teacher, and I only cared about my kids and my classroom."

It was Seattle Superintendent Bill Kendrick who suggested that Vargas entertain the idea of a larger leadership position.

"And I said, 'Are you crazy?'"

So he entered the McKenzie Program in Washington to prepare superintendents of urban schools. After finishing, Vargas got his first posting in New Mexico and progressed to Texas and California. After his work at Los Angeles County's Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, he took a hiatus from direct administration to work with the Stupski Foundation, an educational research nonprofit that focused on learning about educational systems from successful districts.

"It was a tremendous, tremendous learning experience," he said.

His work with the foundation took him to Chicago, New York, San Antonio and Pittsburgh, to name just a few cities, working as an adjunct superintendent and analyzing the successful aspects of the districts.

"What the foundation did was they looked at not only what was working, but what were the conditions that were needed in order for things to work," he says.

The biggest lesson he came away with? The importance of a school board that is unified in its vision for the district and led effectively by superintendents and principals. The systems built to help students can't operate effectively if the core foundation for the district isn't stable.

"If you didn't have these conditions, it was difficult to one, implant the features, and two, sustain them," Vargas said.

Stability within the administration allows the creation of programs such as iGrad, which he developed out of a combination of experiences both as an administrator in high attrition districts and his work with Stupski.

One of Vargas' chief issues for the district has been re-engaging dropouts and other students that have abandoned their education. IGrad has been one such program, and Vargas developed it using prior work experiences in his life, specifically a program he cultivated in Texas called Project Volver.

"We put it in a business center, because kids wouldn't go back to a school they dropped out of," Vargas explained.

In addition to the location, the school provided support services for students and online curriculum. When he arrived in Kent, he was able to use Project Volver as a template for the iGrad program.

"So coming up here, when we saw the gap, it was really building on all those experiences to create iGrad," he said.

Ultimately, Vargas' plan isn't to simply boost the district's ratings with a quick fix here or there, but to make a comprehensive plan that will provide students with the edge they need to succeed in a modern, information based economy.

When he reflects on his time in Kent, and as a superintendent in general, it's not a single accomplishment that he says he's most proud of. Achieving a goal of making a difference in the lives of students and their families — and developing systems and programs that integrate them into the school system — has given him the most satisfaction.

"These are public schools, they belong to the community, so it's important that they feel a part of them," he said.

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