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Originally published Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 3:01 PM

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Incoming superintendent Banda should tap into region's innovative spirit

José Banda is open to charter schools and teachers trained by Teach for America. But he's smart enough to sidestep the minefields surrounding those issues.

Seattle Times Editorial Columnist

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If the Seattle School Board thinks it chose the quiet, low-key José Banda because he will be more malle-able than his more experienced competitors, my great hope is that they are in for a big surprise.

As Banda told me on Monday, he has no problem "agreeing to disagree." He wants to know what the board and the public want, but ultimately, we're looking to him to raise academic achievement across the district, ease racial disparities and bring the city together around the schools.

The biggest test will be remaking an executive cabinet from the many vacancies and positions held by interims and keeping the school board in its policymaking corner, not out of it, micromanaging.

Banda is tech-savvy. So he should expand his LinkedIn connections to include all superintendents in the districts around Seattle. Educational leaders in other districts are swiftly harnessing the energy, fresh ideas and innovation percolating around the public schools.

Every district and every school board differs on strategy, but other districts seem more quickly to crystallize debate into nimble, effective change.

Banda should get to know the wealth of leadership talent at the city's border. Federal Way Superintendent Rob Neu doubled the number of students taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes by automatically enrolling them in the classes.

Ed Vargas, superintendent of Kent, presides over a partnership with the University of Washington that has high-school kids taking college courses sooner and graduating from the UW sooner.

Mary Alice Heuschel, former assistant superintendent for Washington's entire network of 295 school districts, leads the Renton School District and was the state's 2011 superintendent of the year.

This region can become a powerhouse in educational innovation and achievement.

Here's what I like about Banda. He and I had one of the most open and honest conversations about education that I've had in a long time. He is open to charters and Teach for America. But he's smart enough to sidestep the minefields surrounding these issues.

Banda's son teaches English in China and followed his father's latest career step online. I like that Banda is bullish rather than suspicious of technology's uses in education. If any region of the country appreciates that, this one will.

It is also why Banda should check out the Technology Access Foundation in Federal Way. Seattle is now on board with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs, or STEM, but when the district let TAF leave Seattle for Federal Way, it was clearly behind the eight ball.

Latino and African-American students are graduating from TAF's program, going on to college and landing internships at prestigious companies such as Microsoft. A statewide STEM effort that spurred programs in Seattle at Cleveland High School and an elementary school could take some lessons from TAF.

The outward, rather than typically inward view, is critical. Seattle ought to be leading on the pressing educational challenges of the day, from STEM, to narrowing the achievement gap and reducing the dropout rate.

A recent Times story on Rainier Beach High School shows this district is willing to remake a school repeatedly to get it right. That's good. But with all that Seattle has — a premier university in its backyard, the world's largest foundation that devotes a good chunk of its funds to education and a retinue of smart, engaged parents — this district often resembles frustrated teenagers not living up to their full potential.

Maybe José Banda can change that. To see what's possible, he should check out school districts across the way. Other superintendents have to work with boards and parents too. But the successful ones are able to finesse disparate interests and still lead.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is

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