When Dawn Lewis sat down for her interview with the Arlington Board of Education on Feb. 5, it had already been a long day for everyone involved in the process to find the district's next superintendent.
Lewis, who, up to that point had met with administrators, teachers, staff and community members and taken a tour given by students, was the fourth and final candidate to be interviewed by the board that day — a process that began at 10 a.m.
But, when she sat down for her 4 p.m. interview, Lewis said all the nerves had been worked out, not just for her, but she believes for the board as well.
"I was ready for their questions," she said.
Over the next hour-and-a-half, Lewis said she began to get an understanding of what being the district's next superintendent might be like.
"I do feel like what we got out of that interview was a true sense of what our working relationship would be like," she said. "I got a sense of what they cared about and what I cared about and that was what is going to be best for kids. It was clear to me their priorities were the same as mine."
She also walked away from the day knowing that if she was given the chance to lead the district, she'd being doing it alongside administrators, teachers, staff, students and community members who have a great deal of pride in their school.
"You could tell there was a genuine fondness for and between one another," she said. "The students who gave me the tour knew their teachers well as their teachers knew them."
It was also clear that the administrative team enjoyed and supported one another.
"I could tell they were clearly focused on student priorities, not on their own," she said. "The things they were asking me were things I would care about in a school building. I think that spoke a lot."
But, it was a scene involving retiring superintendent Lynn Johnson that solidified her thinking that APS was the place for her.
"Mrs. Johnson was walking with me and kids were coming out of nowhere and running up for hugs," Lewis said. "That's the kind of place I wanted to work, where the kids feel open enough with everyone and they feel safe with those people and feel loved by those people. That's really important to me."
Fast forward five months. Lewis, the new APS superintendent continues to be confident in her abilities to lead the school district, although she understands there's still a learning curve as she gets to know district procedures and the people of the community.
Desire to teach came early
Lewis said she loves learning, a trait that has served her well as she moved from being a music teacher, to the principal's office and now the superintendent's office. Lewis comes to Arlington having served as superintendent for the Arnold and Callaway school districts since 2015.
Long before Lewis began studying at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., a career in education was on her mind.
"I remember when I was in fifth grade, I decided at that point in time that I wanted to be a music teacher," Lewis said.
Fifth grade was the year she could be in band, which she enjoyed.
"I think every kid goes through a phase where they think they know what they want to do," she said. "For me, it always came down to teaching."
Being someone who is goal-oriented when she finds something that appeals to her, Lewis isn't surprised that the goal she had as a young person became a reality.
"When I establish a goal for myself, I really follow through and make everything I need to make happen work out so I can achieve those goals," she said.
Becoming a principal, however, wasn't an initial goal when she began working toward a master's degree.
"I started out in curriculum and instruction with the intent of becoming a more effective teacher or possibly a curriculum director some day," she said.
But program changes caused her to shift gears and take the administration route, eventually earning a certificate as a principal. She'd go on to be a principal for six years, both at a private and public schools before her superintendent role in Arnold and Callaway.
APS the right opportunity professionally, personally
While she wasn't desperate to make a change, Lewis knew if the right opportunity presented itself, she'd explore it.
"I was looking for a school that was sized right and that was a good fit for the skills that I had gained and Arlington checked everything off the list, so that's what prompted me to apply," she said, adding that being closer to her family in South Dakota was an added bonus.
The APS interview wasn't her first in Washington County. Lewis was a finalist for superintendent of Blair Community Schools in 2018. She said the interview process for that position was a good experience and exposed her even more to the area.
"The fact that it didn't work out for me to take over at Blair last year meant this was the right job waiting for me the next year and sometimes you just have to be patient," she said. "Things don't always happen according to our plans, they happen when they are meant to happen."
In addition to being the right fit for her, professionally, Lewis said, it was also important that any move was good for her family.
Three of Lewis and her husband, Clint's, four children will attend APS. Stella will be a sophomore, Stokely, a seventh-grader, and Sofie, a fifth-grader. Their oldest son, Sully, will be a junior at Mount Marty College.
While much of the interview process centered on how she'd be as superintendent, in a sense, Lewis was also interviewing the district as a parent.
"In a position like this, you also put your parent hat on when you are listening to conversations and listening to questions being asked to give you a sense of not just what kind of school it is as a superintendent, but as a parent as well," she said. "It was a priority for me to make sure it was a positive move for my kids."
Getting to know the community
So far, the family seems to be adjusting well, Lewis said.
Stella has already attended dance camp as a member of the high school dance team and is attending summer weight room sessions and Stokely and Sofie have met future classmates at the pool. The recent Summer Sizzle/150th celebration also gave the family a chance to meet their new neighbors.
Lewis and her children aren't the only ones who'll be at a new school this fall. Clint is preparing for his new job as a teacher and coach at DC West.
As for Lewis, her first 11 days have been full of activity as she's started to meet the district staff, attended her first board and committee meetings and began forming a vision for the district with her administrative team.
While a 90-day transition plan hasn't gone exactly as she had planned — she'd had hope to host a community meet-and-greet by now — Lewis said she continues to work on getting to know the community and people on a personal level.
While there are different ways to approach a new job, Lewis said she's not one of those people who's going to come in and make big changes right away.
"My goal is to develop a vision from our administrative team that we can communicate to out to our staff and students," she said. "Any changes I would see coming would suit my leadership style and my personality and way of doing things. That's going to be the only adjustment in the first six months."
Until then, she said it needs to be business as usual.
"You really have to know what you are dealing with before you can decide what you want to change," she said.
Staff was prepared for change
Lewis is no stranger to following someone who, like Johnson, had been with the district for a long time. It happened when she became a principal.
"You try not to think too much about who you are replacing," she said.
But, she does credit Johnson for helping with the transition.
"I believe that Mrs. Johnson prepared the staff well to transition to a change," she said. "Things were going well, she was happy and everybody was happy and it's not that they wanted a change, but they were prepared to handle a change."
As far as comparing herself to Johnson, she said everyone has their own styles.
"You just have to be yourself," she said. "If you are too concerned about replacing somebody, you forget how to be yourself.
Arlington Public Schools and Two Rivers Bank will host a meet-and-greet with new Arlington Supt. Dawn Lewis after the Washington County Fair parade on Sunday (about 5:30 p.m.). The event will be at the fairgrounds' shelter, east of the fair office.