The new superintendent of Bend-La Pine Schools said his immediate priority is getting kids back in school every day after more than a year of disruptions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“At some point we’re going to get to where COVID isn’t always at the forefront of what we do,” said Steve Cook, who took the reins July 1. “Our job is teaching and learning and creating environments for kids to achieve well and succeed and find their path and get them ready for the future that they desire. And right now, I think that’s probably not first and foremost.”
Cook, the former superintendent of Coeur d‘Alene Public Schools in northern Idaho, replaced Shay Mikalson who resigned in June 2020.
Lora Nordquist, the district’s assistant superintendent, served in the interim as superintendent, steering Central Oregon’s largest school district through the pandemic and disputes over virus restrictions.
Divisions and frustrations that surfaced during the pandemic have continued as the school district decides whether to require masks in the fall.
Cook believes having students quarantine after exposure to the virus is a much bigger burden than wearing a mask, and takes kids out of school.
“While we’re often times acting on the best interest of parents who can’t be in that role, we don’t ever want to replace the actions of parents,” Cook told The Bulletin. “So what’s our responsibility? Do we require masks, which now we have the authority to do? Is it in the best interest? Younger students aren’t afflicted by this virus as impactfully as older people, and so should we roll the dice and say we’re not going to mask? And I think that’s the the greater question we’re trying to get the answers to.”
Prior to his tenure at Coeur d‘Alene Public Schools, Cook spent decades as a school administrator and teacher in Colorado and Kansas. While in Colorado, he became the deputy superintendent of Douglas County School District, which serves more than 60,000 students.
Cook describes himself as a teacher at heart. He plans to continue his practice of visiting classes as a substitute teacher for Bend-La Pine’s more than 17,500 students.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “It’s hard work, and it doesn’t stop being hard work when you’re farther away from it as a district leader. And so I pride myself on being that kind of hands on.”
Being in a classroom would provide Cook with instant feedback about what district policies are working.
“For me, the classroom environment is where the rubber hits the road,” he said. “And I want to make sure that the policies, the practices, the systems we put in place at the district level are having positive, meaningful impacts for kids in the classroom. And if I can’t see those things, then that’s a breakdown somewhere in the system.”
Melissa Barnes Dholakia, the chairwoman of the school board, said Cook is a perfect fit and will help the district fulfill its mission of serving every student.
“He brings to Bend a vision that will advance our work toward excellence and equity — developing agency and belonging for students,” Barnes Dholakia said. “Already I see him deeply engaging with our community and leveraging the capacity of our amazing team. Dr. Cook is skilled, grounded, humble and inspiring. I look forward to our work ahead.”
The school board last year committed to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer. That commitment has become a point of tension.
Cook said over the course of his more than 30-year career in schools he has learned to be comfortable in the middle of political issues. He said he tries to connect with parents with differing beliefs and make himself accessible.
He said he was drawn to Bend-La Pine Schools’ commitment to do its best by every child by learning and recognizing how the district is falling short with its marginalized and historically underserved students, including Black, Indigenous and other students of color.
Cook said the district’s work is intended to ensure there are not systemic issues putting hurdles in front of students of color.
“And we’re not going to shrug that,” Cook said. “We’re going to take it on. And that to me is a courageous conversation. How do you balance that without taking resources away, making families feel like they’re being slighted?”