Heather Johnson pictured in Spain. She traveled for two years before returning to Seattle and Catherine Blaine K-8 as its principal once again. Photo courtesy of Heather Johnson
Heather Johnson pictured in Spain. She traveled for two years before returning to Seattle and Catherine Blaine K-8 as its principal once again. Photo courtesy of Heather Johnson

Lawton Elementary School has a new principal this year, and Catharine Blaine K-8 School has a familiar face returning to lead the school. 

Coming home

Heather Johnson (formerly Heather Swanson) led Blaine (2550 34th Ave. W.) as principal from 2006 to 2012. In 2012, she got the opportunity to travel and work with the Columbia Teachers College, which had been running a Readers and Writers Workshop at Blaine and wanted to train teachers elsewhere to implement the program. Johnson took a one-year sabbatical and accepted contracts to implement the program in places like India and Uganda.

“I’ve always said, ‘I never left because I wasn’t happy,’” she said. “I just felt like I needed to push myself as an educator, and I felt like I needed to take some risks.”

She also got the chance to travel and spend time in those countries, Australia and the Galapagos. That yearlong sabbatical turned into two years when she accepted a principal job at a private international school in Barcelona, Spain.

After two years of traveling and gaining the new experiences, Johnson returned to Seattle.

Coming back to Catherine Blaine was a “no-brainer,” Johnson said. “I love that community and those kids,” she said.

Johnson has had fun reconnecting with the parents and students at Blaine. Since she was only gone for two years, she still knows a good majority of the student population. But that population is certainly growing: The school will have 690 students this year — 40 more than the highest-ever when Johnson was there before.

“I’ve always have said capacity like that is a mixed blessing,” she said. “It tells you that you’re on and you’re doing really well and the neighborhood is doing really well, but that’s a lot of [students].”

That nearly 700-student population ranges from ages 5 to 14, so Johnson finds herself shifting modes a lot. “I always joke, ‘We go from biters to fighters,” she said.

Before she sets specific goals, Johnson wants to get back into the school and assess. “There’s been some struggle and some fracturing” in the school community, she said. Her first goal is to reset and create a united front.

Those new experiences abroad will help Johnson relate to the students who are learning new and challenging things all the time, and to the immigrant families who are new to Seattle and the neighborhood, she said.

For the time being, Johnson will handle her return, the start of the school year and the new high student population on her own. She doesn’t have an assistant principal yet, but they are conducting interviews to find the right fit.

In many ways, the nature of her job has changed, Johnson said. When she was in school, the principal was an “obscure person” who handled discipline and showed up to school functions now and then. Now, she needs to lead the teachers, attend community events, handle students’ needs and discipline, meet with parents and do instructional feedback. And then there’s still the regular administrative stuff.

But the crunch before the beginning of the year doesn’t intimidate Johnson; she’s ready to get the school year started.

“I’m excited to just be back in the community,” she said. “It’s a coming home in many ways.”

A welcoming community

Dorian Manza just wrapped up three years as assistant principal at Seattle’s Whitman Middle School and worked for eight years at Alderwood Middle School in Lynnwood, Wash., before that. He was hired as the new interim principal at Lawton (4000 27th Ave. W.) just two weeks ago.

There are a few big differences between middle and elementary school, Manza said, but he’s excited to start “leading and learning with the Lawton staff.”

Manza plans to stay at Lawton long-term. Moving from interim to permanent principal simply means doing a good job, he said. To do that he’s started working on creating connections with the staff and community and leading with transparent communication.

The community has welcomed him with open arms, he said: “I can’t be more pleased with how welcoming everyone’s been and how smooth everything’s been.”

Manza’s main goal for the year is to focus on student learning through a holistic approach: He knows what a student needs to be prepared for middle school, so he’s focused on making sure they get there.

“The focus is to continue to improve that academic excellence that’s already at Lawton,” he said, “because they’re already doing a solid job.”

Manza’s previous positions provided him with a lot of experience and training, but he’s excited to work with the younger student population. 

“They’re eager to learn and there’s so much that they don’t know and they’re curious, and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said.

Monitoring teaching levels are an important part of the job to make sure every student is learning at Lawton, Manza said: “It sounds cliché, but each student, every classroom, every day, top-notch learning. It’s our role to foster that.”

Since Manza was hired so recently, the month of August has been incredibly busy. He’s been planning professional development and preparing for the school to opened.

“It’s organized chaos; it’s focused adrenaline — it’s all of those things,” he said. “You’re serving a community; you’re serving students. And that work, it’s what we need to do.”

Like Johnson, Manza is excited to get the school year under way.

“I’m excited about the opportunity,” he said. “I really appreciate how welcoming the community has been and the staff — everyone has been really welcoming and nice.”

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