Lake Stevens School District Superintendent Ken Collins. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Lake Stevens School District Superintendent Ken Collins. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

After fleeting NFL career, Lake Stevens educator, coach found his niche

Retiring superintendent Ken Collins built a sterling reputation in 34 years in the district, with a decade coaching football at Lake Stevens High.

LAKE STEVENS — Ken Collins knows everybody.

At least, most people in Lake Stevens. The school district’s superintendent has built an impressive reputation in his 34 years in the district, including more than a decade coaching football at Lake Stevens High School.

“You’ve heard of six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon,” said Gina Anderson, the district’s chief academic officer. “It’s three degrees of separation from Ken Collins.”

Now Collins, 63, is getting ready to retire this June after three years in the district’s top job.

The school board is searching for his replacement, with plans to reach a decision at the end of April, district spokesperson Jayme Taylor said. The new superintendent will take over in July.

From the start, education was in Collins’ family. Growing up in Cashmere, he had two teachers as parents.

“I didn’t really know anything else, because all their friends were teachers,” he said. “It just felt like that was a natural thing to do for me.”

Even so, he was unsure for some time whether this was really the path he wanted to go down. He majored in history and education at Washington State University, but was still “undecided,” he said.

Out of college, Collins was drafted into the NFL by the New England Patriots as a linebacker, with the 197th overall pick in 1982. A career-ending injury to his neck forced him to retire after playing for just one year.

Back in Washington, Collins became a student teacher. That experience made an impact.

In his mentor teacher’s classroom, the emphasis was on experiential learning: debates, Socratic seminars, presentations.

His mentor gave students “relevant assignments that made them think about how history connected to their world as they saw it, and that was different for me,” Collins said. “I’d never experienced that before.”

It was the push he needed to decide to pursue high school teaching.

Collins began his career at Marysville Pilchuck High School in 1984, coaching football, wrestling and track, alongside classroom teaching.

When the head football coach job opened up at Lake Stevens High School in 1990, he went for it. And got it.

Collins sees the teaching and head coaching job at Lake Stevens High School as “probably the best job I could have gotten that year.”

That was where he’d stay for more than a decade.

Under his leadership, the Lake Stevens Vikings competed seven times in the state playoffs. In 1994, they made it as far as the Class 3A championship, where they narrowly lost to O’Dea. The following year, Collins was The Daily Herald’s Man of the Year in Sports.

As a social studies teacher, Collins was “brilliant,” said school board President Mari Taylor.

She remembers one particular time when she watched him engage students in an “incredibly high-level conversation” about the U.S. government.

Taylor thought to herself, “this is a guy who really gets it.”

Eventually, Collins moved into the school’s administration, first as a dean of students, then associate principal, then principal.

Anderson, now the chief academic officer, was a teacher at Lake Stevens High School at the time. She remembers how Collins would drop by her classroom to check in on how she was doing during stressful times of the year.

Through the years, he has remained a mentor for Anderson.

“There’s a reason I stayed in the district and there’s a reason why I’m in the position I’m in,” she said. “It’s because of his leadership.”

In 2011, Collins transitioned to an assistant superintendent role. Ten years later, the school board appointed him superintendent.

During his three-year run, Collins hired a director of diversity, equity and inclusion as part of a push to bring an awareness of equity issues to the district.

That effort meant “leaning into some discomfort at times,” he said, to address “age-old biases.”

Collins’ willingness to be vulnerable in those conversations impressed Mari Taylor.

As a leader, “it’s really tough to say that I don’t know all the things,” she said. But Collins showed “how you learn and grow in real time.”

Collins also played a big role in creating the district’s Student Advisory Council based on a plan that students developed, Taylor said.

After he retires, Collins will be free to spend more time on his hobbies, like fly-fishing, gardening and golf. He’ll be out traveling the world, too.

And the next Lake Stevens superintendent will have “one of the best jobs in the state,” he said.

“I chose to raise my kids here, they all went to school in Lake Stevens. They all enjoyed their experience. They’re all doing extremely well in their adult life,” he said. “What else can you ask for?”

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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