Building Confidence as the Great Equalizer
February 01, 2023
Appears in February 2024: School Administrator.
Profile: N. Shalene French
“Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” These words by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hang in the office of Shalene French, superintendent of Idaho’s Caldwell School District, to remind her to use her passion to lead others in her community’s schools and beyond.
“Sometimes my passion may heighten my expression,” says French, who has led the 5,500-student district for almost eight years. “The students of my community are exceptional, but sometimes they don’t know that. When you believe in something, you can be a proponent and advocate and then not be afraid to say something.”
French’s passion for her work has blossomed when it comes to early childhood learning, something she has pursued vigorously in Caldwell after attending an AASA National Conference on Education early in her superintendency. Because the state of Idaho doesn’t pay for pre-K education, it was an obvious target area, and it has paid off quickly. The district works with Head Start to ensure students attend pre-K classes in Caldwell’s schools so they get used to the experience.
“We need to focus on early learning in our community when it comes to what is available for children at 3 and 4 years old and how we support parents in that,” says French, an Idaho native. “Now, they’re confident learners, they’re excited about learning. Our hope is that we don’t douse that feeling of excitement, and they’re confident about being in the school. Confidence is a great equalizer.”
French now serves on the steering committee for the AASA Early Learning Cohort and her district, which is about 25 miles west of Boise, co-hosted a site visit last April for about four dozen school leaders eager to build their own early learning initiatives. Although the purpose was to show off her programs, the superintendent says it ended up being an opportunity for introspection.
“If you ever want to self-reflect, invite people to come visit your program,” French says. “Hearing from them about things to consider is done in such a professional and kind way … so we can make improvements.”
Whether she’s hosting fellow early learning advocates, leading Idaho’s Region 3 for her state association or attending athletic events in her district (“I yell, so I have to be careful,” says the former middle school basketball and track coach), French is invested in relationships and partnerships.
Wendy Johnson, superintendent of nearby Kuna School District, says of her colleague: “I see it often in the community that she’s built with her board, working alongside them and building their individual strengths to lead some of the at-risk populations that exist in the school district. Starting those partnerships with families who would otherwise be unable to afford quality pre-K, starting those relationships early and helping be a partner with families to access that quality education — she’s invested a lot of energy and personal capital in that project.”
Not being one to shy away from vocalizing her thoughts has proven to be “an eye-opener because it has been contentious in the last few years,” says French. However, she has relied on her steadfast board to sustain a focus on improving the school experience for Caldwell’s students. She encourages the detractors to join her through her superintendent-parent council to share their views.
“We’ll continue to do the work, we’ll continue to celebrate what we do well, and we’ll continue to invite you to be a part of that celebration and invite you to serve in a capacity if you have ideas,” says French. “We cannot improve if the individuals who could make a difference just use social media to share their thoughts.”
Juli Valentine is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
BIO STATS: N. SHALENE FRENCH
CURRENTLY: superintendent, Caldwell School District 312, Caldwell, Idaho
PREVIOUSLY: director of human resources, Bonneville Joint School District 93, Idaho Falls, Idaho
GREATEST INFLUENCE ON CAREER: Howard Peck, my principal, and Dan Page, my assistant principal when I taught middle school, encouraged me to pursue an administrative career. I am forever grateful for their belief in me.
BEST PROFESSIONAL DAY: The day I became the superintendent of the Caldwell School District.
BOOK AT BEDSIDE: The Law of Love by Steve Young; The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks; and The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
WHY I’M AN AASA MEMBER: AASA provides mentoring support, a network for sharing innovative ideas, advocacy for public education and a bridge between the “knowing and doing” gap. Because of my AASA connections, I feel my perspective has broadened and my commitment to do what is best for all children has strengthened.