Winning Battles Against Whales and a Housing Shortage

by Paul Riede

Jim Lewis has faced a lot of unusual challenges in his 37-year career.

First there was the trick of how to balance a burgeoning business as a racetrack operator with a teaching career. Then there was the question of how to educate Yupic Eskimos who were more interested in whale-hunting than learning algebra.

But the challenge he faces in his latest job is just as daunting: How do you attract good teachers when they can’t afford to live in your community?

Lewis, 61, is superintendent in Blaine County, Idaho, home to the ultra-chic resort community of Sun Valley. Housing prices have shot into the stratosphere, with typical family homes now going for between $350,000 and $500,000.

When Lewis accepted the district’s top post in 1999, he discovered that half the job applicants refused offers because they couldn’t find a place to live. His solution will take root this spring. The district is getting into the housing business — building affordable duplexes and condos on its own land, right next door to its schools.

“That’s an example of his leadership,” says Julie Dahlgren, vice chair of the school board. “He comes up with a plan, and it’s always a top plan. ...He’s a visionary.”

For Lewis, life in a world frequented by the likes of Mariel Hemingway, Arnold Schwarzenegger and “Bruce and Demi” is a sea change from his childhood just 85 miles away in Idaho’s Magic Valley. There, he helped out at his father’s modest tavern, dubbed the Do Drop Inn after its four-inch drop from street level and prized for its 60-cent roast beef and mashed potatoes. His father died when he was 13, leaving his mother to raise him and his two sisters.

Lewis excelled in math and science, and in 1972, while teaching high school in nearby American Falls, he accepted a summer job as the state’s parimutuel inspector, helping to regulate horse racing tracks. He went on to help build and become CEO of a track in Idaho Falls — while continuing to teach physics and coach highly successful basketball teams.

“That was a pretty big summer job for a teacher,” he says, with typical understatement.

In 1989, he resigned as CEO of the track. He also got divorced.

A year later, he remarried and took advantage of an offer to move to Alaska.

“I asked my best friend, ‘Would you marry me and go to Alaska?’” he says. “She looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Do I have to do both?’”

He took over as K-12 principal on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, 35 miles from Russia, or as Lewis puts it, “15 Eskimo villages out on the edge of the world.”

His challenge was to focus his students on subjects that played little part in a subsistence culture where residents speak Siberian Yupic and hunt whales in walrus-skin boats. “When the first whale was sighted, school was immediately off for two weeks,” he says.

The school reached its students and their families by supplementing academics with a wide array of cultural offerings, including carving, drumming and dancing, and boat building. The strategy worked, with ITBS scores increasing by 68 percent in two years.

Although he operates in a different world in Blaine County, Lewis has brought in some of what he learned in Alaska. He has established eight academies in areas like business, culinary arts and residential construction to “align academics to a primary interest.” And he has used his Alaskan experience with English as a second language to build innovative programs for a Spanish-speaking enrollment that is growing quickly as immigrants seek jobs at the area’s resorts.

Lewis’ words of advice to other school leaders are simple — and perhaps born of his humble beginnings.

“Administrators should always take themselves less seriously, and the teams that do the work should be taken more seriously,” he says.

Paul Riede is an editor at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail:


Currently: superintendent, Blaine County, Idaho

Previously: assistant high school principal, Soldotna, Alaska

Age: 61

Greatest influence on career: Two classroom teachers in elementary school, a coach in middle school, a principal in high school and finally an outstanding superintendent, James Parsley, who led the Idaho Falls school district in the late ’70s. He was a personable superintendent who could promote a vision and get people to take ownership in the mission.

Best professional day: Any days spent in our Eyes of the Child program that we set aside for me to shadow a student. The computer selects a student from an elementary school, a middle school and a high school to give me an entire day to see what their day is like from a perspective on the “shop floor.”

Books at bedside: Powerful Minutes in a Leader’s Day by John Maxwell; and Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge

Biggest blooper: As an assistant principal in Alaska, I had just finished my doctorate. Upon my return to school, the principal included it on the morning PA announcements and asked me to lead the school in the pledge of allegiance. I began strong, then let my mind wander about a student issue and ended “with justice and liberty for all.” With that the principal closed with “and that’s why we encourage all of you to attain high levels of education.”

Key reason I’m an AASA member? I find the research, materials, books and conferences provided by the AASA have been critical to my ability to stay up to speed with issues I face in my district and my state every day.