Their career paths are quite different, but as one begins his 20th year as a principal in the Boise Independent School District and the other embarks on her first assignment as a principal, they share confidence and enthusiasm. In separate conversations with Boise Weekly, Rebecca Severson and Dr. Gale Zickefoose spoke with candor, focus and passion about their respective schools, neighborhoods and the district. As more than 26,000 Boise students head back to class, Severson, Zickefoose and their counterparts at the district's 33 elementary schools, eight middle schools and five high schools are poised to launch another academic year on Monday, Aug. 20.
Zickefoose worked as a teacher/coach for three years in the Nampa School District before transferring to the Boise district in 1993, with assignments at, in order, Hawthorne, Amity, Valley View, Garfield, Cynthia Mann, Collister elementary schools. And in 2015, Zickefoose became principal at Shadow Hills Elementary.
Severson began as a teacher in the Boise district in 2011, with assignments at, in order, Riverside, Whitney and Horizon elementary schools. Earlier this year, she was selected to be the new principal at Roosevelt Elementary.
Based on the administrators that you've been around and your own experiences, what type of principal do you strive to be?
Zickefoose: Early on in my career, I was extremely focused on organization, making things go smoothly. I soon recognized that I was naturally more of an instructional leader. Over time, I've been able to recognize good teaching. I'm a better principal because I've worked with really good teachers.
Severson: Getting in the door and talking to the staff is where you really first learn about the culture of a school. When I first got a chance to meet my staff at Roosevelt, I asked them to write four things down on a card: "What are you worried about? What do you absolutely not want to change? What do you absolutely want to change? Tell me something I need to know about you." I've already referred to those cards many times.
Zickefoose: I was just talking to a couple of brand new teachers this morning. I told them, "You've earned your degrees. You're professionals. You know what you're doing." I think my teachers would say that I support them and trust them to do their jobs well. I don't think they'd say I'm a micromanager. It's in my best interest to trust their judgment and trust their ideas.
Can you talk a bit about how your schools are a reflection of your neighborhoods?
Zickefoose: I don't think many people know that the kids at Shadow Hills literally come from three different cities: Boise; Garden City on the south side of State Street; and from the City of Eagle in a subdivision [on the west] side of Highway 55.
And Roosevelt sits in an East Boise neighborhood that could have been in a Norman Rockwell painting: tree-lined sidewalks beckoning you to take a walk, historic homes and of course the iconic Roosevelt Market right next door.
Severson: As soon as I heard about this assignment, my husband and I rode our bikes over to the neighborhood. I got chills. It's funny that you mentioned Norman Rockwell, because I'm going to put up a famous painting of his in my office. I'm sure you've seen it. It's a little girl sitting outside the principal's office. She has a black eye and a huge grin on her face.
Not all Boise elementary schools operate on the same schedule.
Zickefoose: Shadow Hills is one of eight or nine late-start schools. We get underway at 9:15 [a.m.] and wrap at 3:45 [p.m.].
Severson: Our morning bell rings at 8:40 [a.m.] and we end at 3:15 [p.m.].
How does your own day start?
Zickefoose: My wife and I are pretty committed to getting up and talking a walk with Barkley, our golden retriever, every morning. I live in my own attendance area, so that's a pretty cool commute.
Severson: I'm absolutely a morning person. I have to get up and exercise to get the brain working.
Zickefoose: I've been thinking a lot about how my school days will start this year. I want to be intentional about connecting with my teachers. I have a veteran staff and they're ready to go each morning. But I really want to be cruising around and valuing the time that I'm checking in with them. It's also important for me to be very visible for the students at the start of the day. You know what? Those emails will be just fine until I get to them. I want to be on the playground during recess and in the cafeteria during lunch time. That's really valuable.
We're talking about schools, particularly safety in our schools, now more than at any time in recent memory; unfortunately, that's due to terrible tragedies at some U.S. schools. Can I assume that you and your colleagues are having more conversations about how to prepare for such a terrible possibility?
Zickefoose: It always comes down to communication, thinking ahead, planning. I've learned to communicate early and communicate often. The best decisions are made after talking with people.
Severson: I look at this the same way I look at parenting. Adult problems have to be dealt with by adults. I think that there are so many ways to train, practice and be ready to protect the kids the best way we can.
All that said, communicating with young children about such serious matters is a very delicate business.
Zickefoose: It depends on their age. The littlest ones, our kinders through second grade, I would say the clear majority of them aren't really aware of those terrible incidents. It starts turning when they're third-, fourth-, and definitely fifth- and sixth-graders.
You're both parents. I'm always so impressed how children of principals share their parents with so many other kids.
Severson: When other kids run up to me in the grocery store and say, "Mrs. Severson!" I can see the pride in my sons' eyes.
Zickefoose: When my oldest son was in elementary school, he was playing basketball for Shadow Hills, but I was the principal at Amity Elementary at the time. One of the other kids saw the name Zickefoose on the back of my son's jersey. And the other kid says, "You have the same name as our principal." My son says, "Yeah, he's my dad." The other kid asks, "Why don't you go to Amity?" My son says, "Because my dad's the principal of Amity."