Image courtesy of Lorraine Morton.

Kateri Brow

This article originally appeared in the Issaquah Reporter on October 30, 2009

By Barbara de Michele

In Native American culture, the raven is a mystical symbol of change.

If you patronize the Issaquah Public Library, you may have noticed a set of three ravens — one on a bench facing Front Street, one “flying” into the library over the entrance, and the third near the children’s section, clasping a set of keys in its talons.

Looking closer, you may have even noticed that the library’s three ravens memorialize Kateri Brow.

Who was this remarkable woman, what role did she play in Issaquah history, and why the three ravens?

Kateri Brow (pronounced Bro) served as superintendent of the Issaquah School District from January, 1987 until her death in 1992.

A little like our current President Obama, Brow faced significant challenges when she took the helm of our local district.

Financially devastated, the district was in severe financial straits.

Unprecedented community growth was pushing the district to hire teachers and build schools for 500 to 1,000 new students per year.

And, in the mid-80’s, the state of Washington embarked on a school reform effort that was turning traditional curriculum topsy-turvy.

Given these circumstances, the school board turned to a most unusual choice to lead the district.

Kateri Brow was a short (about 5’ tall), squat, round-chested woman with a booming voice and a booming laugh.

Born and raised in Neah Bay, Brow was proud of her Native American heritage. She wore her hair long and straight, reminiscent of the hippie era in which she came of age, and she favored flowing shirts over slacks.

In some respects she was a hippie, with her love of acoustic guitar, photography and her forested home on Beaver Lake.

But the Issaquah educators and parents who revered Brow also knew of her shrewd intellect and wry sense of humor, her ability to lead people through difficult decisions, and her integrity.

A Seattle University graduate, Brow arrived in Issaquah in 1971 as a Maple Hills Elementary special education teacher.

Once, in an address before the Issaquah Women Professionals organization, Brow explained her decision to build a career within a single district.

As a student, Brow had carefully researched Washington school districts, looking for the right combination of a progressive community, creative educators, opportunities for professional growth, and a good place to live. Issaquah fit the bill, and she applied for a job which she readily received.

Issaquah would become the place where she would stake her life and career.

Brow made rapid progress from classroom teacher to Special Education Manager in 1973, to Director of Program Planning in 1977, to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in 1983.

During these years of professional growth, the Issaquah community increasingly embraced Brow as “one of our own.” Brow’s reputation and stature grew along with the status of her titles.

In late 1986, the Issaquah community received shocking news: the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office was threatening to take over district operations because of a significant budget deficit.

At a packed meeting held at the Issaquah Valley Elementary School gymnasium on January 5, 1987 the board named Brow as Interim Superintendent, replacing James Swick.

Public confidence in the district hit an all-time low. Voters expressed skepticism over the district’s ability to handle levy and bond funds. Parents removed students and transferred them to other districts and private schools. Fifty-three classified workers and nearly 30 certificated teachers and administrators lost their jobs.

Brow moved quickly to restore confidence, visiting schools, classrooms, PTA and Chamber of Commerce meetings.

At one point she climbed aboard school buses and rode with students and drivers, asking for their input into solving Issaquah’s financial woes.

In a “stump speech” that became rather famous within the district, Brow went from school faculty to school faculty, extolling the virtues of saving every penny of taxpayer’s money.

“Pull the drawers out of your desks and see how many paperclips you can find,” she would tell the assembled teachers.

Her already-established credentials as a master teacher and administrator helped. A strong sense of teamwork began to pervade the district.

Internally, Brow re-structured the district’s finance office. Within a few short months, the board enacted budget controls and oversight measures still in place today. Subsequently, the district’s bond rating was renewed at the highest possible level.

Finally, Brow directed district curriculum leaders to establish a cyclical review system, ensuring that every area of student learning was subject to continuous quality improvement.

In the spring of 1987, the first test of Brow’s leadership loomed large: a levy and bond election. Significantly, voters approved the levy and bond, an amazing accomplishment for the neophyte superintendent.

On May 1, 1987 the board named Brow permanent superintendent, her title until her death from cancer in Nov., 1992.

In her short tenure, Brow received numerous awards and honors, as did the Issaquah School District. Most memorably, in 1988 she was named Washington State Superintendent of the Year.

Across every curriculum area, student test scores rose until Issaquah was at or near the top of all districts in the state.

Students were also recognized for excellence in sports, in the arts and drama. Issaquah became known as an innovator in technology, well ahead of other districts.

Encouraged by Brow, parents established the Issaquah Schools Foundation, an organization that has since raised millions for Issaquah schools and students.

Beyond Issaquah, Brow played a significant role in the development of standards that later shaped Washington State’s school reform movement.

Which brings us back to the Issaquah library’s three ravens, particularly the raven with the keys in its talons.

Brow told the story of how one of her own Neah Bay teachers had shown her a set of keys.

“Learning is like this set of keys,” the teacher said. “Every time you learn something new, you find a way to open another door.”

In Native American culture, the raven is a mystical symbol of change, sometimes whimsical but often profound.

Brow was such a change-maker, opening doors for herself and others throughout her life.