When Dana Stiner attended elementary school, she didn’t think she would ever become a successful adult due to a learning disability identified in the second grade.
“I struggled greatly through elementary school, had low confidence and was often embarrassed by my academic performance,” said Stiner, now the principal at Pine Tree Elementary School in Kent.
“It wasn’t until much later in my life that I learned the ‘basics,’” she said. “At that point, I was determined to help other children not feel the way I had felt in school. All children can learn. It’s our job as adults to help them figure out how.”
Stiner, of Maple Valley, certainly figured it out. Last week, the Association of Washington School Principals named Stiner as the state’s Elementary Principal of the Year.
“Absolute confusion and shock,” Stiner said about her reaction when presented Jan. 11 with the prestigious award by the Association of Washington School Principals, Kent Superintendent Israel Vela, colleagues and family. “It was a complete surprise and huge honor. There are so many amazing principals in Kent School District, let alone the state of Washington, that deserve this award.”
Stiner builds a culture of hope and ensures that every single staff member is supported to help students succeed, according to a Kent School District statement. She also creates an environment at Pine Tree where every student is excited to learn and grow.
Principals and assistant principals are nominated each year for the state award. Nominations can come from anyone, including district staff, school staff, students, parents or community members. Nominees then fill out an application to be scored by a review panel.
Stiner will be recognized at the national level by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). She will be recognized with winners from other states as one of NAESP’s National Distinguished Principals. The group does not select a national elementary principal of the year.
“Personable. Trusted. Genuine. These are just a few of the qualities describing Stiner,” according to an Association of Washington School Principals press release. “She’s one of those people you wish you could clone — and so are the outcomes of her achievements.”
Stiner is in her sixth year as principal at Pine Tree Elementary. Before her arrival, the school had four different principals in four years. Turnover was high, student behavior was a challenge, and bullying was on the rise, according to the press release. Stiner worked closely with staff to create a plan that included a positive reward system, social skills training and developing a culture where everyone felt heard. Her team’s work resulted in an environment where students thrived socially and academically and where students looked forward to going each day.
“I love the fun we have together, the hope we build, the learning that we do, and the community we have formed,” Stiner said.
Stiner’s dedication to knowing each student and staff member individually is part of what lends to the positive culture, according to the state principals’ group.
“Dr. Stiner is a distinguished instructional leader that knows every student by name/strength/need, is in every classroom every day, engages in side-by-side coaching daily with teachers, and has earned the trust and respect of her diverse families and community,” said Christine Avery, Kent School District executive director of learning improvement.
Stiner also knows how to mix learning with fun. For example, she dreamed up the idea of a vending machine for books, according to the press release. Her office manager was able to acquire an old vending machine and convert it to hold books. Now the vending machine has become part of the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) reward system.
There’s plenty of praise for Stiner.
“Dana is the most deserving principal for this award because she improves the lives of children every day,” Avery said. “She changes the trajectory of a student’s life by growing distinguished teachers and creating a school environment focused on learning, a sense of belonging, hope, and joy. She is relentless on her focus to improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment and thereby achieves closing achievement, opportunity, and equity gaps for her students.”
Stiner grew up in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh. She graduated in 2000 from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania with a degree in elementary education. After marrying, she and her husband moved to Arizona and then relocated to Washington.
She earned a master of education in multicultural education and educational leadership from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. In 2018, she earned a doctoral in educational leadership from Seattle University.
Stiner was a teacher and assistant principal in Phoenix prior to becoming a Renton School District elementary math facilitator in 2014-2015 and then going to Pine Tree Elementary in 2015 as an assistant principal.
Stiner will be honored this fall in Washington D.C., as part of the National Distinguished Principal of the Year program, sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education. All state winners participate in a series of events and activities over the course of two days, culminating in a formal awards banquet.
Quite the accomplishment after her early struggles in elementary school.
“First and foremost, I love kids,” Stiner said about becoming a teacher and eventually a principal. “Second, I have a deep passion and commitment to ensuring all students reach their hopes and dreams.”