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Ken Crawford: from underdog to top dog

Still at home in the classroom: Ken Crawford spent much of his career working with special education students before becoming Bainbridge school district superintendent last month.  - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Still at home in the classroom: Ken Crawford spent much of his career working with special education students before becoming Bainbridge school district superintendent last month.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

Ken Crawford may be superintendent more by chance than by choice.

Crawford, whom the Bainbridge School Board promoted when Steve Rowley left the post last month, has followed a career track in special education that doesn’t usually lead to the district’s top office.

But he believes his work in special education has developed skills that will help him do a good job.

“You can’t survive in special education unless you are a good listener, a good problem-solver,” Crawford said, “and (are) astute with respect to legal matters.”

His wife Susan also taught severely handicapped kids, and through their work, the couple became foster parents for several others. In so doing, Crawford says he has developed “tremendous empathy” for the underdog.

It is a point of view that also stems from his own childhood disabilities – he dealt with hearing loss and a severe speech impediment.

“I had the nickname of ‘Daffy Duck,’ Crawford said. “From some kids it was okay, and some others I had to beat up.

“The girls kind of thought it was cute.”

Schools didn’t provide much remedial education in the 1950s and ‘60s, but Crawford’s mother, herself an educator, worked with him. He tackled his challenges head-on, signing up for the school debate team and undertaking public speaking whenever he got the chance.

“I was raised in such a way that my mother wouldn’t allow me the self-indulgence of excuses,” Crawford said.

Nor did the impairments get in the way of his happy early years.

“I just enjoyed the heck out of my childhood,” he said.

Born and raised in Walla Walla, Crawford grew up in a family with local roots. His great-grandfather had pioneered in the 1880s, and his mother is half Umatilla-Yakima Native American, giving Crawford enough blood to be registered, if he so chose.

“She never pursued it for herself,” he said, “because those were the days when people didn’t want to claim that background.”

Crawford played “every sport imaginable” and aspired early to coach and to teach.

Sports often edged out academics on the list of priorities.

He’d put in eight hours in school, go for a run, play sports, and then bag groceries for two or three hours. After that, he’d do a little homework.

He also worked as school custodian.

“I learned at least one thing,” Crawford said. “The girls’ locker room is messier than the boys.’”

The wild one

Crawford admits that he was “a little wild” as a youth, and that riding his motorcycle was an important feature of that time.

“I lived an energetic, active life with a great deal of freedom and parental faith in my good judgment,” he said.

Today, Crawford still owns a bike, a 1951 Indian Scout motorcycle he is retooling in his brother’s garage in Eastern Washington.

Age age 53, he still likes rock and roll enough to specify in his will that the Rolling Stones tune “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” be played at his funeral.

Crawford married his high school sweetheart and settled down. He credits the values his parents gave him for his maturity.

“I was raised to be conscientious and courteous,” Crawford said, “to consider how my actions affect others – and to expect courtesy, as well.”

Crawford attended Eastern Washington University in Cheney. He tried to enlist, but allergies kept him out of the armed forces, despite his two years in Reserve Officers Training Corps.

“I wasn’t a great believer in the Vietnam War,” Crawford said, “but I did believe in service.”

Another run at enlistment proved futile, and he took a job teaching junior high.

After a stint as special education supervisor for the Reynolds School District in Portland, Ore., and then in the Evergreen School District, he was made director of special education for Battleground schools.

As an assistant and then a deputy superintendent for Bainbridge schools, Crawford proved an able generalist, whose skills ranged from personnel and bargaining issues to hard-core budgeting.

“I don’t think of myself as either left or right-brained” Crawford said. “I think it (skills) just comes of having been at the central operations level for so long, and I’ve always aspired to know as much as I could about what the people around me are doing.”

Personnel changes in 2001-2002 pushed Crawford into an even more active leadership role for the district.

He worked with new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Faith Chapel and partnered with district business manager Peggy Paige to bring the district budget into line.

The school board – which had added a clause to Crawford’s contract a year ago, naming him interim superintendent if Rowley left – was ready to expand the offer by late spring.

“Our original agreement was for a one-year interim contract,” said Cheryl Dale, school board president. “But we as a board have so much confidence in Ken – and he has so proven himself as deputy superintendent – that we are signing a two-year contract.”

Road ahead

Crawford’s plan for a district facing lean funding is to give teachers the resources they need, while staying within the budget.

“The building budgets haven’t gone anywhere for the last three years,” Crawford said. “The teachers love kids, but it can be discouraging.”

Crawford says he will be a “stay-at-home” superintendent, rather than focusing on district representation at the state level.

He hopes to forge bonds with community groups, and wants a “more informed” relationship with the city.

He also plans to form a superintendent’s advisory group of in-district and community representatives to be a sounding board.

Crawford says that his familiarity with district issues is a strength he brings to the job, and describes his style as “hands-on.”

“I like being in the building, in the classrooms,” he said. “It’s important to have that perspective. Because the decisions I have to make impact what occurs at that level.”

Crawford says he looks to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s principles of “affiliation and affirmation” to motivate kids to learn through positive classroom experiences.

He describes the educational process as being as much about climate as it is about test scores, saying that students will learn for teachers they care about.

He also views the Bainbridge superintendency as the culmination of his career.

“I truly never aspired to be superintendent – but if I had to identify a school system to be superintendent, this would be it.” Crawford said.

He expects that his style of leadership will be relaxed and personable.

“People fascinate me, people of all sorts,” Crawford said, “so I enjoy interacting with them.

“We’ll see if there is room for someone like me.”

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