By Jason Cruz
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Dr. Kelly Aramaki is the new Bellevue School District (BSD) Superintendent—chosen by the school district’s board last month. He will commence his new position this July and he has a sea of challenges ahead for him. This includes the recent recommendation to shut down three elementary schools in Bellevue, just two years after kids returned to school in person after closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a school board meeting on Feb. 9, interim school district Superintendent Art Jarvis indicated the need for closing down schools based on enrollment losses due in part to the elimination of federal funding. He noted that the smallest and least affluent schools have seen the greater loss in students. Dr. Jarvis stated that while transfers to more affluent schools are accepted, the “small poorer schools get even smaller.” Ardmore Elementary School, Eastgate Elementary School, and Wilburton Elementary School were the three district schools recommended for closure.
According to a 2021 report from US News and World Report Ardmore Elementary School is comprised of 44.2% Asian students. Eastgate Elementary School has 38.8% Asian students. Wilburton Elementary School has 44.8% students identifying themselves as Asian.
Dr. Aramaki will begin his tenure attempting to navigate these transitions if the consolidation of schools commences at the beginning of the next school year.
Getting the call
Dr. Aramaki recalls that he was in the oatmeal aisle at Costco with his mother when he received the call from the school board president offering him the position. He accepted on the spot.
“The community outpouring has been really amazing to me, I’m just so thankful for this community and I’m excited to be leading the Bellevue School District.
“Bellevue ran a rigorous nationwide search,” said Dr. Aramaki.“It wasn’t so much about becoming a superintendent. It’s that I wanted to be a superintendent in Bellevue—where I live, and grew up.”
Aramaki’s Eastside roots run deep. His family was one of the first Japanese American families in Bellevue.
“In Bellevue, Aramaki gained many friends among the Americans for his kind efforts and work on behalf of the whole community,” read an obituary on Aramaki’s great grandfather. “He helped build the Japanese community to what it is today, the most centralized cooperative, closely bound Japanese community in Washington.” Aramaki’s family established a farm in his grandfather’s name since he was a Nissei and could own land and his great grandfather could not. They sold strawberries and blueberries cultivated from the farm at the Pike Place Market.
Finding his calling
Dr. Aramaki attended Newport High School and then went on to the University of Washington. He majored in Zoology and minored in Music.
“Like a typical student, I did not know exactly what I wanted to do. The first thing I thought was that I loved music and played the piano.” However, he was not accepted by the department.
“There was a time when I was pre-med, then music, then psychology, and then my senior year, I wanted to go pre-med.”
As part of preparing to become pre-med, he had to volunteer.
“I started to volunteer at the Experimental Educational Unit (EEU) at the University of Washington.” The time volunteering significantly changed his career goals.
Dr. Aramaki’s sister was born when he was 10 years old. She has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological and developmental disorder that affects the way the brain develops.
“I grew up with her, she is just the most incredible human being.” His sister Karen is non-verbal and lives with his parents.
“She teaches me everything about unconditional love, compassion, kindness, she responds to kindness, and she only responds to love.
“At the EEU, I saw kids with disabilities becoming friends with kids without disabilities, and I could see how the teachers were creating communities of total belonging and acceptance and it was emotional to be a part of that and so I was like, ‘I have to do that in life.’”
Dr. Aramaki applied to the Teachers College at Columbia University to pursue his goal of being a teacher.
“They were doing really great work in inclusive education,” said Dr. Aramaki of his decision to go to school in New York.
It was at a conference he attended while in New York that brought him back to Bellevue. “What’s incredible as part of our program, they had us presenting at conferences. I ran into somebody whose child was disabled and went to a school here in Bellevue. She told me that I should consider coming back and teaching there.”
He went back to Newport Heights and became a 4th and 5th grade teacher.
“Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the whole world. It requires an intense amount of skill, so much patience, and you have to have a deep love for people in general.” He recalls that the first year of teaching was hard.
“You are constantly grading, teaching, planning so you have to be very organized.”
Currently, as assistant superintendent, he oversees mental health counseling and mental health support for students.
“Things are harder now coming out of the pandemic. It took a toll on kids socially and emotionally.”
He sees mental health as a “key priority” in the next 10 years.
“Part of it is the system has to organize in order to fund and support that.”
BSD has mental health professionals at all elementary, middle, and high school levels that are dealing with anxiety, social/emotional needs, and depression. He also stressed that staff wellness is a critical focus to ensure that teachers and staff are taken care of from a mental health and wellness standpoint.
A higher calling
Dr. Aramaki decided he wanted to move from teaching to becoming a principal. He saw that the principal is key in creating an inclusive environment and he wanted to be the person to create that. He applied for the Danforth Educational Leadership Program at the University of Washington and earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in 2018.
Nominated by a panel of his peers, Dr. Aramaki was awarded 2013-2014 Washington State Elementary School Principal of the Year for his work at Beacon Hill Middle School.
“It was an honor and when I reflect back on that time… it’s just a reflection of the teachers and the people doing that work.”
Dr. Aramaki stresses inclusion, diversity, and celebrating the different cultures within the community. Many of the students at Beacon Hill were students of color (86%) and more than one-third of the student population spoke English as their second language.
A call to action
Dr. Aramaki’s daughter is a freshman at Interlake High School.
“I think like many teenagers, she doesn’t say one way or the other about the position. I think she’s happy for me for sure but it doesn’t change her reality.”
He joked, “I don’t necessarily think kids know who their principal is one way or another.”
“The only major challenge is trying not to embarrass my daughter,” said Dr. Aramaki. “I visit schools and walk through classrooms a lot—so I have to make sure I’ve got the subtle wave down,” he said of his plan when he visits Interlake.
“I think that when it comes down to decision-making that impacts kids, it is calling snow days.” He noted that it is one of the more important decisions to make during the school year that directly affects kids.
In his downtime, Dr. Aramaki likes hiking, snowshoeing, and reading. He also loves cooking with his Instant Pot.
Dr. Aramaki indicated that there is an enrollment crisis with BSD as exemplified with the recommendation that three elementary schools close. He also stated that student mental health is a high priority as well as “uplifting the staff and focusing on staff wellbeing.”
He added, “As daunting as they are, I’m looking forward to taking on those challenges, because I care about the thriving and flourishing of our district—the kids, families, and staff in our community.”
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.