A Michigan educator will be the Haines School District’s next superintendent. The school board offered Anthony Habra the position after in-person interviews this week with him and Yakutat Superintendent Robin Gray. Habra says his educational priorities are three C’s: creativity, courage to take risks and critical thought.
Habra started his career in education in an unexpected way. He says after working as a cab driver, a singing telegram man and vacuum cleaner salesperson, he got a job as a preschool aide.
“While I was an aide there I had a four-year-old child come up to me and he said ‘you have long hair, and you have an earring.’ And I said ‘yes I do.’ And he said ‘but you’re not a girl.’ And he turned around and walked away and I knew, that’s it, this is what I have to do with my life. His box got just that much bigger. And I thought I want to do this forever.”
Habra has now been in the education field in Michigan and Arizona for about 20 years. He was a teacher for at-risk students, a counselor and then a principal and superintendent. Since 2013, he served as superintendent for Paw Paw Public Schools in Paw Paw, Michigan.
Habra says he’s interested in Haines School for its size and emphasis on arts.
During an hour-long interview Wednesday, the school board asked Habra about one of the main superintendent responsibilities: budgets. He says it boils down to two questions, what’s best for kids and what’s fiscally responsible?
“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve said, ‘we have more money, how are we gonna spend it?’ It’s always, ‘we have less money, how are we going to work this out?’ And I do that by being open with the numbers, I don’t want to play a lot of games. Being in education isn’t like being in a business, I don’t get to make decisions myself and everybody follows them blindly. I don’t view it as a top down model at all. If I’m gonna work with everybody, here’s the information how are we going to make this work?”
The board also asked him about one of its priorities, to more effectively engage middle school students.
“If you want to engage middle school students you have to give them challenges,” Habra said. “You have to create situations where they’re being stretched beyond their thought process, and where they feel that it’s safe to take some risks.”
Technology at the Haines School has been a topic of debate in recent years. Habra said it should be used as a tool for learning with professional development for teachers to make sure it’s utilized well.
“To ignore technology is just as dangerous as to say that our kids should have a lot of technology in front of them.”
The other finalist for the superintendent job, Robin Gray, had a similar take.
“We need to be able to give our kids those kind of opportunities,” Gray said. “Whether our kids decide to stay in our community, go to college, be commercial fishermen, go into the military, whatever, we need to provide them as many resources that they can go out there and be competitive when they do it.”
Gray has been with Yakutat School District for two years. Much of her 40 years of educational experience was related to special education.
“You know, I get the alternative kids, even when I was in regular ed. I had six fourth grade boys who couldn’t read. I got a broken engine and I got the manual, and they did their reading by reading that manual. And they fixed that engine.”
Gray and Habra both emphasized the importance of consistent, transparent communication between a superintendent and school board.
After interviews, the board met in a closed-door session for more than two hours to decide who they wanted for Haines’ next superintendent. Board president Anne Marie Palmieri said in the end, the board decided on Habra because of his vision.
“And the fact that we think he’ll be a great leader for the district,” Palmieri said. “He talked about creativity, critical thought, and creating a place where kids will take risks.”
Palmieri said it was a difficult decision, because both Habra and Gray were strong candidates.
Habra said he was excited and relieved to be offered the superintendent contract.
“I was excited that they felt that I would be the right fit and excited for my family also, this is what we want.”
Habra’s three-year contract states that he will be paid a salary of $113,000 the first year, with a one percent raise in subsequent years based on a successful evaluation.
The school board hired the Alaska Association of School Boards to conduct the search, which was a change from how it was done last time, when former superintendent Ginger Jewell was hired. Jewell fulfilled one year of a three-year contract before resigning in spring of 2015 to take a job in the Lower 48. Interim superintendent Rich Carlson has filled in in the year since then.
Carlson will hand over the reins to Habra on July 1.