Mastering Fundamentals in Two Arenas

Type: Member Spotlight
Topics: School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2023

White man wearing checked shirt and brown glasses. He has a beard.

Christopher Nesmith works and plays in rough-and-tumble worlds. He’s the superintendent of the 1,700-student Elma School District in Washington state, and he coaches the Deschutes Rugby Club, a nonprofit sports club in Lacey, Wash.

He’s passionate about both endeavors. He and his wife Kasey, both former rugby players, coached together for 15 years, almost as long as his professional career, which began as a business education teacher in 2006.

Nesmith, who grew up in Grays Harbor, Wash., where rugby didn’t have a presence, believes working in schools and playing in his favored sport have much in common. His approach to teaching and learning shines through when he’s conducting a team practice.

In rugby, he explains, mastering the fundamentals is paramount. If you can break things down to basic skills, assign metrics and track them, it’s not hard to identify where you need to make improvements and design strategies to achieve that.

In education, to succeed, students must master certain standards, with educators measuring their progress before devising strategies for improvement. Unfortunately, he says, the education system has been fairly rigid in recognizing more expansive ways for students to master (and demonstrate mastery of) those standards.

Nesmith is intent on changing that. Now entering his third year as superintendent of a district just 30 miles from where he grew up, he champions permeability in career pathways, an approach that he discovered when visiting Germany to study its dual-track vocational training program.

When applied to mastery-based learning, permeability expands ways of learning and demonstrating competency. Rather than being confined to a set curriculum, students have wide flexibility to explore avenues aligning with their personal interests. They can pursue professional apprenticeships while keeping their academic options open, as long as they demonstrate they’ve mastered the required skills.

The Elma School District now offers multiple career pathways, including a program in manufacturing/industrial maintenance. Eight high schoolers this year are part of a youth apprenticeship, and the superintendent is working to build more community partnerships. He has championed innovations in career and technical education throughout his career, including several years with the title of executive director of innovation in the West Valley School District in Yakima, Wash.

During his time in Yakima, he worked on developing a youth apprenticeship program and trained in Zurich with educators from nine other countries. Not long after, the West Valley district launched the first apprenticeship in manufacturing.

Harium Martin-Morris, a Washington state board of education member, praises Nesmith for his vision and drive and for leading the way regarding mastery-based learning, a state board initiative.

During his time with West Valley, Nesmith developed a magnet school tied to career pathways that used the mastery-based learning model. And now, because of Nesmith’s efforts, Elma is the lone K-12 district in the state implementing mastery-based learning through every grade level. He’s intent on making the schools more student-centered.

“That’s the heart of what Chris is trying to do,” Martin-Morris says. “He’s saying, I am going to give you the skills for whatever path you want to take.”

He believes Nesmith has the tenacity to pull this off. “If you are trying to change a system, it takes a significant amount of time. It’s a big shift. You need to have that stick-to-it-iveness,” he says.

In doing so, Nesmith is setting an example for other districts. “They will become the north star for the state of Washington,” says Martin-Morris, “and they will have the data to support it.”

Jennifer Larson is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn. Twitter: @JLWrites


Jennifer Larson

Freelance writer

Nashville, Tenn.

BIO STATS: Christopher Nesmith

Currently: superintendent, Elma School District, Elma, Wash.

Previously: executive director of innovation, West Valley School District, Yakima, Wash.

Age: 39

Greatest Influence on Career: My granddad, Jim Davis, emphasized constant self-improvement and greatly impacted my work ethic.

Best Professional Day: In 2017, after witnessing Germany’s effective apprenticeship program, I implemented a youth apprenticeship in aerospace in Washington. Watching our teens mastering aerospace manufacturing was a significant highlight.

Books at Bedside: Learning for Careers by Nancy Hoffman and Robert Schwartz; and Learning to Improve by Anthony S. Bryk et al.

Why I’m an AASA Member: All superintendents should look to join a cohort. Engaging with top educational minds, sharing insights and learning from challenges faced by peers is invaluable.