A small group of home-grown school superintendents in California defy the stereotype of a school leader who parachutes into a district, spends three or four years there, and moves on to a new job in another district.
One in 4 of the superintendents in the state’s 20 largest districts were at one time students in the same district that they now lead. Some of them – including Los Angeles Unified’s Michelle King, Long Beach Unified’s Chris Steinhauser and San Juan Unified’s Kent Kern – have spent their entire professional careers there.
These superintendents bring a deep understanding of their districts that comes only from growing up there and experiencing district schools from the inside. Some of those superintendents say they are likely to stay longer in their positions than the typical school chief, and some education experts say they have a greater chance of effecting change and maintaining district stability.
“A strong familiarity with a district can give a superintendent a huge advantage in pushing for changes,” said Carl Cohn, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a new state agency that is providing support to districts to improve educational outcomes.
Cohn should know. He is best known for his 10-year tenure as superintendent of Long Beach Unified. While he didn’t attend district schools as a student there, he grew up in Long Beach, attended parochial schools in the area and he brought a deep knowledge of the community and the challenges students faced there.
In January, King, 54, became the first black woman to lead Los Angeles Unified. School board President Steve Zimmer proclaimed her “the daughter of our city, a graduate of Palisades High School, and a teacher from our schools, a principal, a leader of our community.”
“L.A. Unified has been part of my life since I was 5 years old,” she said on the day she became superintendent. “My teachers instilled in me a lifelong yearning to learn.”
Superintendents who return to lead districts where they grew up say they are at least in part motivated by a profound yearning to honor their teachers, coaches and other mentors who nurtured them along the way.
“The single most important reason why I decided to come back to Stockton was because I had some unfinished business in this town,” said Eliseo Dávalos, who became superintendent of Stockton Unified this summer. He is one of seven children whose parents immigrated from rural Mexico.
Dávalos, 61, attended Stockton schools from kindergarten through 9th grade, when his family moved to Contra Costa County. He went to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, eventually earning a doctoral degree in education from Claremont Graduate School. While doing the latter, he worked as a teacher and principal in Southern California districts before coming home to Stockton this year.
“I benefited tremendously from the education I was provided here as a child,” Dávalos said. “I knew as an educator I could use my skills as an administrator to help students in Stockton Unified achieve their goals, just as teachers had invested in me.”
Retired octogenarian Mae Hill was one of Dávalos’ mentors when he was in elementary school. When he became Stockton’s superintendent this year, he stood in an auditorium at the University of the Pacific, with Hill at his side, and thanked her in front of a crowd of teachers.
“She was my 4th-grade teacher and I remember her every day,” Dávalos said in an interview, choking back tears of gratitude.
“So when teachers in Stockton make their references to their ‘Mrs. Hill,’ I certainly understand that, because I know that I have been someone’s Mrs. Hill,” Dávalos said.
“That’s the work I want to do here,” he added. “To instill the same passion and spirit in the educators in the district.”
‘We are family’
North of Stockton on Highway 99, Elk Grove Unified Superintendent Chris Hoffman has come home, too.
For 15 years, he worked at school districts in the Sacramento area, commuting many hours a week between his family’s home in Elk Grove and his teaching and administrative jobs. In 2014, the Elk Grove school board appointed him to lead the district.
Like Dávalos, Hoffman sought a superintendency that would give him the opportunity to give back to the community where he was raised. But what stands out most is his love for the district’s Valley High School, where he was captain of the football team and where he would meet his future wife.
“The atmosphere at that school made everyone feel welcome,” Hoffman said. Then, like Dávalos, he also broke into tears for a few moments.
Hoffman, who is 48, said that Elk Grove, more than any other large district in California, has held onto its small-town feel despite being the fifth-largest school district in the state, with nearly 63,000 students.
In addition, Hoffman said, the district brings many of its former students back as teachers. He recently counted nearly a dozen former students who teach in the district.
When Hoffman told his family that he was accepting the Elk Grove superintendency, his oldest son asked, “Does this mean that you will hand me my diploma when I graduate?” Yes, it did, dad said, including his signature as district superintendent.
“I get to do that this year again,” Hoffman said, when his younger son graduates.
San Juan Unified Superintendent Kent Kern, 48, recalls a similar small-town atmosphere when he attended schools in the San Juan Unified district in the Sacramento suburbs.
As a student, Kern recalls his teachers looking out for him, particularly when he was diagnosed with cancer in his sophomore year. Kern, who played basketball, recovered. He was appointed San Juan superintendent in 2014.
Kern and Hoffman said they intend to stay in their positions for several years. That, they say, will help ensure that their districts are more stable over time.
‘Where I come from’
Stockton’s Dávalos introduces himself to visitors in his office by showing them a framed photograph of the tiny house where he lived as a child with his six siblings on the city’s south side. “This is where I come from,” he said, pointing to the photo.
Stockton is the only place Dávalos wants to be a superintendent. There is a lot of work ahead for the district, where test scores are low and one-third of its students are learning English.
But he’s looking forward to elevating student achievement, he said. “We’re waiting for that to happen. We will celebrate because our kids deserve it.”
What stands out the most from Dávalos’ childhood memories is that schools were fun places to be. Schools also were where he learned to speak English. “My teachers worked really hard to make sure we got really good lessons and to make sure we were safe in school,” he said.
“I know there are little Eliseos sitting in classrooms today who are waiting for me to come and say ‘Let me build a path for you, and let me tell you how I did it.’ ”
A recent EdSource survey showed that 17 of the superintendents of the state’s 30 largest districts have been in their posts for three years or less. Nine of them were appointed in 2016 alone. Two weeks ago, Oakland Unified Superintendent Antwan Wilson became the most recent chief of a large school district to leave his post – in his case after less than three years in office. Wilson will become head of the District of Columbia public schools.
It may be no accident that the superintendent with the longest tenure among the state’s 30 largest districts is Long Beach Unified’s Steinhauser, who was appointed to his post in 2002. He not only attended Long Beach schools, but also went to Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach. He has spent his entire career there, as a teacher, principal and administrator. Steinhauser’s district, which is the third-largest in the state, is acclaimed for a range of innovative programs.
During Cohn’s decade as superintendent of the Long Beach district, he enjoyed strong support from the community – so much that the editor of the Long Beach Press Telegram once told him:
“As a hometown guy, everyone is rooting for you to be successful.”
Update: Eliseo Davalos resigned his post at Stockton Unified on December 17 for personal reasons. Read the story here.