New Hazen High School principals ready for new year

September 3, 2008

By Jim Feehan

John Kniseley, (left) principal, and Giovanna (Gia) San Martin, assistant principal, make up part of the new administration at Hazen High School.

John Kniseley, (left) principal, and Giovanna (Gia) San Martin, assistant principal, make up part of the new administration at Hazen High School.

As a small boy, John Kniseley dreamed of being a Navy pilot. He didn’t become a naval aviator. Instead, Kniseley followed in the footsteps of his father, a high school administrator.

This month, Kniseley (pronounced NIZE-lee) begins his tour of duty as principal at Hazen High School. Also new this year in the administrative team at Hazen is Giovanna (Gia) San Martin, who will serve as one of the school’s assistant principals. Craig Cooper is the other.

Kniseley previously was principal at Ridgefield High School, about 20 miles north of Vancouver, Wash. Kniseley also served as assistant principal in Monroe and in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Kniseley grew up in Glendale, Calif., and moved to rural Lewis County when his father, Jack, took a job as principal at Onalaska High School.

“Talk about a culture shock,” he said of the shift from the bedroom community of Los Angeles to the small farming community half way between Seattle and Portland.

Beach parties at Malibu and Santa Monica were traded for hoedowns at the local grange.

“My father bought me a cow that I entered in 4-H competition and we quickly assimilated into the community,” he said.

Having your father as your high school principal had its lighter moments, Kniseley, 43, said.

“If you ever saw anything written in the bathroom, you didn’t know to whom it was directed,” he said of not knowing whether people meant him or his father.

Still, he learned more than reading, writing and arithmetic while in high school.

“I remember the barn parties my dad threw for the teachers and staff,” Kniseley said. “The camaraderieamong faculty members is something I saw firsthand.”

His father moved on to serve as superintendent at the South Whidbey School District and he currently serves as assistant principal and athletic director at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo.

Kniseley accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship to attend the University of Southern California. He didn’t become an aviator but did spend time aboard a minesweeper sent to Bahrain in 1988 to keep the shipping lanes open during the Iran-Iraq war. He’s still in the Navy, a member of the Reserve.

A standout athlete in football and baseball, Kniseley saw teaching as a means to pursue a career in coaching.

“After student teaching, a light bulb came on and I found I loved teaching,” he said.
Kniseley was looking to move to a larger-sized school than Ridgefield, “Home of the Spudders,” with its enrollment of 670. Last spring, Hazen’s enrollment was 1,360.

“I enjoy working with a larger staff and administrative team,” he said. “I had a burning desire to get back to this size school.”

In talking with his father and Bill Sarvis, the principal at Kamiak, Kniseley said Sarvis spoke glowingly of his time as principal at Hazen, from the late 1980s to 1991.

Kniseley said teacher collaboration will be a major focus this year.

“I want to model true collaboration to increase student learning,” he said.

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Kniseley has children attending Hazen. His son, Jay, is a sophomore and daughter Kayli is a freshman. He has three other children, Ryanne, a fifth-grader at Hazelwood Elementary, Anna, 4, and Brooke, 2.

“My kids want to go to school where I’m the principal,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to get lunch money.”

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Clash
Giovanna San Martin was raised in Lima, Peru. As a girl, she enjoyed riding horses and playing polo. At 7, she was going over the business ledger with her father at his textile company. San Martin was groomed to take over the family business until she found her calling in teaching. She most recently was an administrator in the Seattle School District, working in various positions including assistant principal.

“My heart is with children,” she said. “I like working with families and students. That’s what makes me happy.”

Her goal this year is to improve test scores at Hazen.

Students don’t often hear enough words of encouragement, San Martin said.

“All children need to be encouraged, even if your parent had a fifth-grade education,” she said. “Stop with the excuses. Students should never feel sorry for themselves or feel like victims.”

Her office is filled with plaques with self-affirming quotes: “Believe in yourself,” “Celebrate life” and “No whining.” A small chalkboard reads: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent – Eleanor Roosevelt.”

“Her message keeps me going,” San Martin said.

Hazen’s mission statement, of challenging students to become life-long learners and to reach their potential in a rapidly changing society, rings true for San Martin.

“It’s time for students to learn other languages, different cultures and the global economy,” she said. “The students are going to have to get used to a foreign woman with an accent.”

The school administrator also has an eclectic taste in music. Her cell phone ring tone: The Clash’s, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”

“I like The Clash and I also like techno music,” she said. “I’m 40, but I still feel like I’m 32.”

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