EVERETT — A teacher’s offhand comment made Edmund Wong quit raising his hand in class.
He and his fellow third-graders were asked what they had for breakfast. Most described cereal or pancakes.
Wong said he had noodles.
The teacher thought he was confused.
Then, she said maybe it had something to do with the fact that he wore the same clothes every day.
It stung. Wong already felt like an outsider, a quiet kid living in poverty in south Seattle and often attending mostly white schools.
Now, as principal at Horizon Elementary School on Casino Road, Wong tells the teachers about that day.
“That impacted me forever,” he said. “I didn’t want my staff to make the same mistakes in not reaching out.”
The students at Horizon, in the Mukilteo School District, are described as 79 percent low-income, with 45 percent learning English, according to state data.
When Horizon’s previous principal retired after nearly two decades, Wong requested a transfer from Discovery Elementary. The new assignment was just three miles away, but far more diverse. This is his second school year working on Casino Road, where he has become known for sharing stories from his life.
Wong, 42, and a father of two, was the keynote speaker at the YMCA Casino Road Community Center’s annual celebration in September.
“I’ve always felt like it was my purpose to give people like me voice,” he told the crowd. “Because there’s so many people that were in my situation, that had good things to say and unbelievable gifts and talents, that were dismissed simply because people see where they came from and then discredit or devalue what it is that they bring to the table.”
As a teen, growing up with parents who immigrated from Hong Kong, Wong felt expectations he said are normal for Asian families — that he would become a doctor or an engineer. Once enrolled at the University of Washington, it took him months to admit to his parents that he was more interested in teaching.
During his senior year of high school, he realized, “I like the structure of school. I want a structured day.” He even liked the sound of the bells, keeping everyone on task.
After college, he worked for “Sesame Street” in New York City, mostly writing scripts on health topics for Spanish-speaking populations, before earning a master’s degree in education. He knew he wanted to work in high-poverty schools.
“There’s a connection with the kids out there,” he said.
Back in south Seattle, this time as a teacher, Wong poured his energy into after-school programs, especially for boys at risk. Sports was a bridge for conversation. Many of the students were lacking positive male role models; he was often one of the only male teachers around.
“I felt like I could always do more,” he said. He remembers thinking, “I need to start leading a school.”
He also spent time working in Wapato, a town of 5,000 near the Yakama Indian Reservation, as the school district’s first Asian administrator.
On Casino Road, he quickly saw how the south Everett neighborhood is served by nonprofits and faith organizations working together with families. Like them, Wong is not afraid to ask for help when it’s needed, said Cory Armstrong-Hoss, of the YMCA. He added that Wong’s outreach has helped link the school community into that larger effort.
For example, Wong once quietly convinced a bank to donate hundreds of pairs of shoes for his students, Armstrong-Hoss said. The principal didn’t broadcast that information, or take credit.
“A lot of that comes from his heart and how he grew up,” Armstrong-Hoss said.
“He felt on the outside for a number of years, so a lot of what he tries to do is, what he talks about is, in this life you can be a door opener or a door closer,” Armstrong-Hoss said. “He tries to open doors as much as possible for kids and not put them in a box or assume anything about them, but to give them opportunities and hold them to high expectations. He does that for the staff around him as well.”
Tyrone McMorris, executive director of Casino Road Kids Ministries, attended a meet-and-greet for Wong at the school’s library in spring 2017. He found the new principal to be approachable as well as “fair and firm.”
Wong listened to those who had been working in the area for years, McMorris said.
“I remember just watching him and listening to him answering folks, just seeing him as a calm, gentle man,” McMorris said. “He is someone who knows what the kids on Casino Road are going through. He grew up in poverty and he understands how that affects you socially, emotionally, physically.”
The staff at Horizon try to make it so every student has the same experiences and opportunities as anyone else, Wong said, listing the Boeing Tour as one example.
“Everything we do, we do through a lens of equity,” he said.
“I want to change the perception of Casino Road,” he said, while making sure its children know there’s a larger world outside of south Everett.
“I’m very real with them. It’s not just fluff,” he said. “I know what you’re going through, but let’s get a plan, how do you want to get out of this?”
Those with immigrant parents face further challenges in understanding the path to college. And those parents may have additional fears or concerns about participating at the school and in other programs, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy known as DACA.
“We don’t make the choice for them,” he said. “We don’t tell them what is right or wrong. We just want to inform them of their rights and especially their kids’ rights.”
In the cafeteria some days, when students have a lunch that maybe isn’t ham and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly, he hears teachers saying, “That looks yummy!”
“I so wish that was me back then,” he said.