Moving the district forward

Ric Seager is the new Watervliet Public Schools superintendent.

WATERVLIET — A school district is somewhat like a ship.

“The big ones don’t turn around real quickly,” said new Watervliet Public Schools Superintendent Ric Seager. “Not that that is a bad thing, but in smaller schools you can be more nimble and responsive. I just like to move things forward, so that’s kind of the school I’ve been aiming for to be a superintendent in: one where I can move projects forward.”

Seager started July 1 as the new superintendent of the district following Kevin Schooley, who left at the beginning of the year. He comes to Watervliet from Schoolcraft, where he was the high school principal.

The Buchanan native is in the process of moving into the district with his wife and two golden retrievers and hopes to build a house on a property just east of the high school/middle school.

Seager, the father of four adult children, didn’t have the most traditional path into the education field.

“I started at Albion College playing football out of high school, I played sports in high school too. Like a lot of kids in that area, the casualty of economic downsizing in the region, I had to leave Albion, kind of strike out on my own,” he said. “I finished school at Indiana University, got my bachelor’s degree, by primarily working labor. I did a couple of summers with Joe Arnt at Arnt Asphalt Sealing.”

For a while, Seager had his own paving company to help get him through school.

“I come from working-class roots for sure,” he said. “It’s in my DNA. My family is from here. If you go back a few generations, my great-grandfather on my dad’s side grew up in Watervliet.”

Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Alexandra Newman sat down with Seager recently to talk about how he worked his way up to superintendent.

Tell me about your career and how you got to this point.

I always kind of wanted to be a teacher and coach. I wasn’t sure when I first started, though. I did a summer where I helped out with a football team in Buchanan and did a lot of scouting for them and while I was going to school and kind of got the bug to teach and coach then.

When I got done with my education, there wasn’t a lot of teaching jobs in this region. I actually went to work for a small engineering firm in South Bend. I did that for a while, then an opportunity came for me to be a teacher and coach up in Belding, Mich. By that time I was married and we decided to start our adventure. I was there for a couple of years, then I got an opportunity to be the technology coordinator in Bridgman. That was my first foray into administration at about 27 years old.

I knew I still wanted to teach and coach, I wasn’t done with that, even though I had gotten into administration early on. I needed to be a better teacher to be a better administrator if I wanted to do that with my career. So then I spent another decade at River Valley and Jackson Northwest, then got back into administration.

I was a building level administrator in the Bronson school district for six years, then from there went to Kalamazoo Public Schools for five years as director of school improvement and assessment. My job was to work with the most struggling schools in the district and help them turn around and move them forward.

So my background is in school improvement and instructional development and curriculum. I have a master’s degree in curriculum instruction and assessment. So that’s really, I think, the main strength I bring to the job. I feel like I made myself better and better.

My work now is to help build that capacity in other people.

So why superintendent and why Watervliet?

I was on that trajectory for a long time. When I fist got into the business my father in-law asked me what I wanted to do with this and I said I wanted to be a superintendent. I didn’t know why. I just think you try to have as big an influence as you can. It’s always sort of been in the back of my mind.

I was a finalist for the Buchanan superintendent job in 2010. I withdrew from that because I got the offer in Kalamazoo, but it was really about an opportunity to grow again. You can be in the job and then you can do the job. I don’t think there is a chasm there, but there’s certainly a gap between people who are in the job and people that do the job very well. I’m not meaning that in a critical way, I wanted to be good at it when I got into it. Having that extra experience in Kalamazoo was really good for me.

I was ready for another superintendent position in 2013, when my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I decided that I, even more, wanted to work with kids more directly. That’s what got me into Schoolcraft. Also to be able to move initiatives.

One thing that I learned in this is that if you’re achievement motivated, like you want to see things through and come to fruition, like I do, great big districts can be a real challenge. So  I’ve looked for superintendent positions at districts like Watervliet, and with my familiarity with the region, the timing just seemed right. They gave me the chance to do it and hopefully I’ll do well.

So what has it been like so far?

Good. We have great people here. One thing about when you’re an executive in any company is that you really don’t do anything. It’s what you can inspire other people to do. So you look for a place that has people there that have demonstrated they can do things. We have really really good people here and they’ve demonstrated that. We have a seasoned administrative staff of very intelligent people.

What is your favorite part about working in schools?

It’s always about the kids. Being around the energy and seeing the students grow. I have a former football player (who) is a local business person now, and I got to see how he blossomed in his senior year helped make him the leader that he is today. So being around that. That’s what this business is about and what I like the most.

As a superintendent you’re not directly involved in that bringing up, but you create the environment where that can happen. You hope by creating a better environment throughout the entire organization you get more of that. And that’s what I’m looking for.

Do you have a least favorite or challenging part?

The superintendency is a more political position than any other job in the district and I’m typically pretty blunt. It’s something I’m always working on, but I’ve found that most people appreciate that as long as you’re not crass or rude. Sometimes that’s difficult. You’ve got to be careful and tactful when you’re in a political position.

Certainly the type of leadership that worked for me on the football field isn’t going to work for me in the board room. I’ve got to change things and that’s OK. I like the challenge, but the politics are the thing – if only we didn’t have to deal with that it would be a better situation for everybody. But these are human systems, they’re about people and policy. If you take on the job you know that’s what you’re getting into.

Do you have any big goals or plans that you can share right now for the district?

For me, always the goal is to be at the top. Watervliet is a really, really good school district. There are a lot of people who want to be here and want their kids here and we’re excited about that. That brings challenges for sure, but it also brings some great opportunity.

We want to be achieving at the top of the county. That’s our No. 1 goal. We also want to be ahead of the state in performance. Once we are those two things we want to be one of the best high schools in the Midwest. We’re on the precipice of many of those things.

Watervliet High School is constantly being given awards by U.S. News & World Report and the Mackinac Center for high performance. The goal is always to have a school district where people send their kids that’s not only great environment and a great school community, but it’s also a place where my kid will be very well educated and will have every opportunity available to them when they leave. My goal is to create that. We all should have those goals.

When you’re not at school, what do you do in your free time?

What free time? No. My wife and I hang out a lot. We go and do things and try to stay active. We put time in with our kids and family and friends. We haven’t done a lot of traveling, but that’s something we’d like to do down the road.

Is there anything else you’d like to say or make sure that I include that I didn’t ask?

I’m just real happy to be part of the Watervliet school community and am looking forward to us doing wonderful things for generations of kids here.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman