Riley: South Colby will remain ‘family school’

New principal wants school to retain focus on what works

An involuntary transfer changed Joe Riley’s career path.

That is Riley’s explanation for how he became the principal at South Colby Elementary School a dozen years after his high-school graduation.

Riley, who turns 31 in November, moved from John Sedgwick Junior High to South Kitsap High School in September 2011 after district officials sent reduction-in-force notices to some teachers in a budget-cutting measure. While Riley did not lose his position, he said his lack of seniority pushed him to the high school. Riley said the dean position at SKHS opened shortly thereafter and he moved into that role a month later.

“I got that global look and then I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “My goal had always been to go that route — probably 20 years into my career after teaching — but it just kind of upped my timescale. I’ve never been happier.

“I’ve always had a very global aspect of how I look at things with education. I wanted to get out of the mindset of just how I can affect change in my classroom and really support learning for kids outside of just the kids I get to work with.”

But Riley knew that opportunity probably would not come in the South Kitsap School District, which did not have much turnover in the administrative ranks of its 10 elementary schools. Because of that, Riley left two years ago to become principal at Pioneer Intermediate/Middle School in Shelton. Riley described the situation as “unique” because the student body is fourth through eighth grade.

Riley always longed to return to SKSD, though. He attended Olalla Elementary and Sedgwick before graduating from SKHS in 2003, where he played basketball for John Callaghan and baseball under the late Elton Goodwin. Shortly before he received his diploma at Tacoma Dome, Riley celebrated winning a state baseball championship. He said the life lessons he received while playing under Callaghan and Goodwin — and others — were the most important elements for him becoming a teacher, though.

“By ninth grade I knew I wanted to be a teacher because I was so impacted by how positive it was every day I came to school,” Riley said. “I loved being in school.”

Riley, whose parents — Mike (assistant director for facilities and operations) and Martha (cook) — are longtime SKSD employees, and his wife, Martha, a second-grade teacher at Mullenix Ridge, decided they wanted to settle in the area. The couple have 1- and 4-year-old children.

“The sense of community in South Kitsap is why my family has stayed so long and why my wife and I recently moved back,” Riley said. “We want our kids to go to South Kitsap schools.”

That opportunity came when longtime South Colby principal Brian Pickard was promoted July 1 to serve as the district’s executive director of staff and school support. While it might be a change for many when school opens Sept. 9 without the longest tenured principal in SKSD — Pickard served in the role since 1992 — Riley is hopeful that they see similarities when students are greeted with high-fives by staff and community members through the “Tunnel of Hope.”

“People always worry about a change,” Riley said. “It will always be the family school.”

He hopes that is not the only similarity everyone involved with South Colby sees.

“When it comes to my leadership style … I look at myself kind of like Brian as that servant leader,” Riley said. “I want my teachers to feel supported (knowing) that I’m there to help, but also my students know that if they need anything they can come to me. I never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.”

Riley, who is in regular contact with Pickard, said he expects “a very easy and smooth transition because a lot of the continuation with the programs is here.” He said his biggest role will be working to continue the educational programs put in place while meeting the ever-changing state and national benchmark requirements.

And making sure students feel the same way about their education as he did.