This October, the Northwest Asian Weekly presents the Visionary Awards Gala, an event honoring visionaries in the APA community.
By Gabrielle Nomura
Northwest Asian Weekly
Before he’d taken his SATs, driven a car, or even knew which high school he was attending, Kelly Aramaki had a profound experience that would influence his future career.
It happened during his years as a student at Hazelwood Elementary in Renton.
“[My teachers] instilled in me a belief in myself — in my abilities, in my unique talents, and in the power of hard work and determination,” Aramaki said.
Educators at all levels of education are critical. But Aramaki was drawn to the influence one can have in a child’s earliest years of education.
The half-Korean and half-Japanese American has made a lasting impression on the students, families and colleagues he’s encountered in his 14 years in education.
In 2013, the former principal of Beacon Hill International Elementary was promoted to Executive Director of Schools for the Southeast Region of Seattle.
Oh, he was also named Washington State’s Principal of the Year.
“For every success that I’ve had that has been called out by one of the awards I’ve received, I can point you to 10 other teachers and principals who are doing it better,” he said.
It’s this attitude that’s made him beloved by colleagues, students, and families.
During the past two years at Beacon Hill, Aramaki presided over a school where more than two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs; more than 86 percent are students of color; and 32 percent speak English as their second language.
Many of the families hail from Vietnam, China, Laos, Mexico, Guatemala, and Somalia.
It seems fitting that Aramaki would be effective at an international language-immersion school, considering his values.
“This may seem overly lofty, but I believe that any hope for world peace depends on the next generation of leaders embracing culture, perspectives, and compassion,” Aramaki said.
An example of Aramaki’s desire to teach students about social justice happened in 2004.
As a first-time principal at Bothell’s Maywood Hills Elementary School, Aramaki was presented with a challenge right from the very beginning when a tent city moved in to a church lot just a block away. Aramaki’s actions had a profound effect on the students. The tent city, as Aramaki explains, became a lesson in compassion.
He encouraged students to get to know their neighbors, which one sixth-grade class did through a field trip to the tent city. The experience, Aramaki said, was an eye-opener for students who got to know the people there.
“I wanted to teach my kids that we don’t judge people or assume we know them … We have to be humble enough to get to know each person individually and their stories.”
“Just a kid from Bellevue”
Diversity is important to Aramaki. But as a person of color himself, he hardly ever encountered feeling different in his hometown of Bellevue.
Aramaki’s Japanese ancestors came to Bellevue in 1899, becoming blueberry farmers near Lake Bellevue. After Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II,
his family moved back to the city on Seattle’s Eastside and has remained there ever since.
Aramaki grew up in Bellevue’s pervasive, college-going school culture, eventually graduating from Newport High School before going on to the University of Washington and then the Teachers College at Columbia University.
“I love both my family’s Japanese and Korean backgrounds. And, we have the best Thanksgivings – turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, tempura, sashimi and kimchee.”
Sometimes people would ask Aramaki how it worked having a Japanese American father and Korean American mother. It wasn’t until Aramaki went to graduate school and studied Asian history that he had an “ah-ha” moment about why people were so intrigued by his heritage.
Today, Aramaki chooses to identify as Asian American, because he embraces both of his parents.
Of course, as he points out: “My dad would prefer that I just say that I’m ‘American.’”
Despite his ever-growing list of accomplishments, Aramaki claims the successes he’s stumbled on to pale in comparison to the life-changing progress made in public education every day by countless educators.
“I think the better question is, ‘What do you attribute to your receiving of these accolades?’ And, I don’t know the answer,” he said.
What Aramaki can say is that it’s not about him. He’s just doing his best to mirror and emulate the great work being done around him.
Clearly though, the new Executive Director of Schools for the Southeast Region of Seattle has some special qualities that are all his own.
Case in point, after receiving his Principal of the Year Award, Aramaki sang to his students at an assembly, rewriting the lyrics to “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars.
The kids, and adults, were surprised.
“I felt like Justin Timberlake that day,” he said. (end)
The Visionary Awards Gala is Oct. 18 at China Harbor Restaurant from 6–9 p.m. Tickets are available for $70 before Oct. 15 and $80 afterwards. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabrielle Nomura can be reached at email@example.com.