Always-learning leadership steers small, diverse Nooksack schools - Salish Current
April 19, 2024
Always-learning leadership steers small, diverse Nooksack schools
Matt Benoit

Nooksack Valley School District’s Matt Galley has served as superintendent since 2021. The third-smallest district in Whatcom County, Nooksack Valley is also among the most diverse, with nearly 50% of its student population being non-white. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current © 2024)

April 19, 2024
Always-learning leadership steers small, diverse Nooksack schools
Matt Benoit

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A mindset of ongoing learning for teachers and administrators as well as students drives Nooksack Valley schools to higher achievement.

When Matt Galley took his first class at Western Washington University for a master’s degree in education leadership, he learned about building staff relationships within a school and how that could help student learning. 

“It really spoke to me,” he said. “I can’t describe it any other way. I just really, really liked the conversations we were having, and it caused me to think of an administrator as a head coach in some way.”

Galley — a Bellingham native and Sehome High School graduate — knew something about coaching, as he’d worked previously as an assistant football coach and head baseball coach at Nooksack Valley High School, in addition to teaching English and physical education. He’d been with the district since 1999, eventually working his way up to high school principal. 

Although Galley had initially thought his career in education would remain in teaching, he gradually realized being an administrator was more in line with his professional ideals. When he finished his formal education in 2014, he conducted an internship under longtime Nooksack Valley superintendent Mark Johnson.

In 2021, Johnson retired, and Nooksack’s board hired Galley to take over. In his three years as superintendent, Galley has navigated his district through a global pandemic, seen the construction of a brand new middle and elementary school, and stepped in as many in his district dealt with severe flooding in November 2021. 

More recently, Galley was chosen as the county school superintendent selection for the new Whatcom Racial Equity Commission (WREC), a diverse body of Whatcom County representatives that will include up to 31 members. 

The WREC appointment committee has made 19 recommendations for the still-forming commission, which were announced by the county executive’s office on April 1 and confirmed unanimously by the county council on April 9.

Smaller — and more diverse

With just 1,968 total students enrolled, Nooksack Valley School District is the third smallest of Whatcom County’s eight public school districts, with a few hundred students more than Meridian and Mount Baker. 

Its makeup is also outside the average in a number of ways, according to 2023–24 school-year data from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

Nearly 36% of its student body is Hispanic or Latino — nearly double that of Blaine or Bellingham and 7% more than the next closest district (Lynden). Its number of non-white students is now nearing the 50% mark. 

Nooksack Valley is the only Whatcom County district with a significant percentage — 3.7% — of migrant students, from families who move to follow the harvests. 

Debbi Anderson-Frey, a longtime Nooksack Valley teacher, said she remembers having one of the district’s first Hispanic children in her classroom more than 20 years ago. By the time she retired in 2011, the demographic diversity of the area had exploded.  

“Within 10 years, our district was really transformed,” she said. “The needs were completely different because of this influx of different populations.”

Cristal Campos has seen the district from basically every angle over the years. 

Once a student, Campos was hired at age 19 to be a paraeducator in the district. She eventually became a teacher, and is now in her second year as assistant principal of Nooksack Valley Middle School. 

Campos said the district’s mindset is driven towards educational equity for both students and all staff. 

“A lot of the good work that we do comes from the professional learning that we provide for the adults in our buildings,” she said. 

As one of the few teachers or administrators in the district who is also a person of color, Campos said that she is keenly aware of the positive impact that having staff that mirror what their student population also looks like. That, however, continues to be a challenge.

“A lot of our hiring comes from Western,” she said. “Oftentimes, it’s not other people of color (joining our team). We have definitely had a conversation that’s been ongoing (about) how we can find people to come work here who represent our school community.”

Campos works closely with Galley, meeting with him and other administrators at bimonthly meetings, and feels that he has been personally supportive of her career within the district.

“It is a struggle to be a leader of color in the community who is facing that for the first time,” she said. “There has been a little bit of pushback (from others), but I just feel like he’s always been really willing to listen and learn, and he asks really good questions. He’s also learning with us.”

Living in a services desert

Nooksack Valley also ranks third among county districts in the percentage of low-income students. Galley points out that the part of the county where its schools are located tends to be the furthest from essential resources like food, healthcare and mental health support services. 

“We are a services desert out here,” he said. “We have (some of) the most in-need of resources, and people with the least resources. We’ve found that a lot of hope and expectations for support fall on the school system.”

Over the years, this has led to the district reducing fees or costs for families whenever they could, including the purchasing of school supplies for families least able to afford them. 

Changing demographics have also led the district to rethink professional development for teachers and other staff, to better support students and families with limited American schooling or English experience, Galley said. 

“I think every (district) has those similar challenges across Whatcom County,” he said. “It feels like there’s a higher density of that in our smaller system.”

Nooksack is ranked third in Whatcom County among its proportion of low-income students, but continues to post particularly solid student achievement scores. It boasts an 87.6% four-year graduation rate (third highest in the county), a 90% attendance rate of 70.4% (second highest), and 47.3% of its Spring 2023 students met English language arts standards (third highest). 

The lay of the land

Being the superintendent of a small, rural district like Nooksack involves taking multiple roles. 

While Galley said he’s better able to know what’s going on, and actually gets to know staff and families on a personal level, the district also has fewer personnel, leaving him to sometimes handle duties that might be designated to another person in a bigger district.

Workers tend landscaping at the newly upgraded Sumas Elementary School. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current © 2024)

Still, as a former teacher, he relishes the chance to continue the legacy of his predecessor Johnson, who was superintendent for 28 consecutive years. 

“He modeled what I think it means to … stay connected to the classroom, by actually being out in the classroom fairly regularly,” Galley said, adding that maintaining good communication and visibility among staff and students can easily decline if not prioritized.

When he visits elementary schools, Galley said, children who know him will simply call him “Superman,” since they’re not yet able to pronounce his full title. 

“When nobody knows who I am, I know I’m not doing what I need to be doing,” he said. “It helps your ego a little bit when a little kid is calling you ‘Superman.'”

Galley said he feels very involved in professional development and learning around the district’s instructors, and is able to speak relatively specifically with them as a result. 

“It’s important for me that teachers know I know what the work is,” he said. 

Anderson-Frey also said that Nooksack made teacher education a priority, even before she retired. 

Under Johnson’s tenure, the district focused particularly on leadership education, allowing teachers to visit various educational institutions. One summer, Anderson-Frey completed a leadership program at Harvard. 

“We had lots of amazing, sort of cutting-edge learning opportunities,” she said. “It really transformed sort of the value set in the district, which was: if kids are going to learn, teachers have to learn, and administrators need to learn right along with them.”

One reason the district was able to do this was because of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she noted. Nooksack Valley received a substantial amount of money from the charity earlier in the century, including a $972,000 award in 2000, a $686,000 grant in 2005 and a $205,000 donation in 2010. 

Recent construction in the district has come courtesy of voter-approved bonds in the last decade, Galley said. Those funds allowed the rebuild of Nooksack Valley Middle School and Sumas Elementary School, as well as added classrooms to the district’s other two elementary schools, he added. 

Anderson-Frey believes Galley is doing an admirable job so far as superintendent, especially when things got tense during the pandemic.

“Our school board meetings were packed with 300 people,” she said. “It was an inflammatory kind of situation, and he managed to keep the community together through that and basically let people have a voice and carry on with a program of belonging and dignity for all kids and parents.”

A place at the table

Regarding his selection to the racial equity commission, Galley said his position is an exciting opportunity to broaden conversations around access, status and a sense of belonging that he’s already having at the district level.

“We want everybody to feel like they have a place at the table,” Galley said. “Right now, there’s some people who are telling us that they don’t feel like they belong at the table. So how can we listen and work together to get everybody to the table without somebody else feeling like they have to leave the table?”

With both the WREC and his job as superintendent, Galley said it is important to sit back and listen to the diverse perspectives of families in the communities. 

“We really need to know what all of our students and families’ experiences are, to the best that we can,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot, just from asking fairly open-ended questions and listening to people, and believing that their experience is their truth. And if we hear things that we can do to adjust our system to better support those families, then we do. We try to be very intentional about that, and we’re still learning.”

— By Matt Benoit

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