Nine of the superintendents in the state’s 30 largest districts were appointed to their posts in 2016. EdSource interviewed four of them to get their thoughts about their experiences during their early months on the job. They were interviewed by EdSource’s Michael Collier and Louis Freedberg. EdSource plans to follow up with them as their tenure unfolds to hear about their successes and challenges.
Stockton Unified District, Start Date: July 2016
Eliseo Dávalos served most recently as assistant superintendent of curriculum/instruction and accountability at San Bernardino City Schools. He has worked in K-12 public education since 1979, as high school teacher, migrant education resources teacher and community college teacher. He spent nine years at the Corona-Norco Unified District as director of instructional support and student services.
What do you think is the impact of superintendent turnover on districts?
I believe that superintendent turnover has a negative impact on the district and the entire community. It contributes to the inability of a district to define and implement a shared vision for the district, to establish clear goals and expectations and to provide continuity in all aspects of the district. It also undermines any strategic long-term planning that the district might want to engage in.
How has your district responded to your superintendency so far?
When I introduce myself to someone from the district and community, instead of hearing “nice to meet you,” I hear, “so, how long are you here for?” My response is that I am here to stay, not going anywhere. That seems to calm them. Then I get the “nice to meet you.”
What is the impact of turnover on teachers and principals?
I believe that instability of superintendent tenure in a district contributes negatively to day-to-day life at the schools. Principals are more likely to support status quo practices rather than innovation. Teachers are more likely to believe that the direction and leadership the superintendent provides is of no consequence to them. They are waiting to add the next name to their list of leaders who have passed through the organization.
What are some positive outcomes when a new superintendent arrives?
The stability of a superintendent in a district can give the entire school community a feeling of being respected and valued, while at the same time a sense of comfort, in knowing that there is someone at the helm who is focused on the day-to-day, but also on the future of the district.
San Jose Unified District, Starting Date: April 2016
Nancy Albarrán began her career as a teacher in the Los Angeles and Oakland Unified districts. She joined San Jose Unified in 1999 as a bilingual teacher, and later became director of bilingual education and special programs. In 2010, she was appointed director of elementary curriculum and in 2012 she became assistant superintendent of instruction.
How has your longevity in the district helped you in your new position?
I appreciate the opportunity to help the organization I grew up in. I joined the district in 1999, and for the past two decades I have overseen the instructional side of the district. In the process, I have been able to forge relationships with school board members, teachers, students and others. As a result, the district’s transition in the past several months has been smooth.
How important is the continuity of leadership to the school board?
One thing that is important to the school board is that the superintendent be committed to our strategic plan, which former superintendent Vince Matthews started four years ago. It is known as Opportunity 21. The school board had questions about the plan, which is in its final year of implementation. We are going to the community to find out what revisions they’d like to see in the new plan — what do we need to take out and what stays in.
How well are you able to deal with teacher shortages?
Another objective is how we support and retain teachers now that the economy is stronger. A months-long campaign to recruit teachers was a success, and the school year opened with all vacancies filled. We are trying to be fair to our employees, given how tough it is to live in this area. Teacher salaries make that challenging. This year we gave a 7 percent across-the-board retention bonus to teachers and all other staff.
How are you dealing with the many high-needs students in your district?
We have to be strategic in how we align our resources, particularly for students who have needs. For example, we are putting the transportation of special education students back in-house because we regularly had issues with routes and tardiness when we hired outside operators. Now the drivers are our employees. We hold them accountable to expectations.
West Contra Costa Unified District, Starting Date: July 1, 2016
Matthew Duffy most recently was assistant superintendent in Milpitas Unified, where he was in charge of teaching, learning, leadership, enrollment and technology. Before that he served as a principal and area superintendent in Oakland Unified, where he designed a district school, Elmhurst Community Prep.
How has your district community responded to the change at the top?
I think it is a big deal, to have any type of change after a long-term administration. This community has a lot of change happening: A new superintendent, a new head of the teachers union, new school board members. I hope it will result in greater academic achievement and better social and emotional outcomes for kids. I feel encouraged.
Do you feel that under your leadership the district has a chance to rise up?
I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t feel it might make a difference. I feel like people are really excited about the change. They feel excited about a new era. You never want to talk poorly about the people who came before you. But I bring a new set of eyes, and questions: Why are we doing this?
What’s it like to be one of the youngest superintendents in the state?
People are getting younger and younger in these leadership positions. When I go to superintendents meetings, I feel young. I am 43. I think younger staff and teachers connect with me. At the same time, there are a lot of veterans who are looking for a new way and are excited about me being here. People are craving more communication, more sharing of ideas, more vulnerability, more risk-taking, and that is right up my alley.
Has the start of the school year felt like baptism by fire for you and your staff?
I can tell you after being here for two months that in these large systems, there is so much to do, there are so many stakeholders, so many schools. The magnitude of it can really wear you down. Probably the most important thing is having a strong relationship with the school board. You can go far longer when the board and the superintendent are aligned.
What do you consider to be your strongest asset in your new role?
The stagnancy of academic achievement pushed a lot of new community organizations to get involved and ask for more change. I don’t see myself as the vehicle for those reforms. I don’t see myself as embodying those reforms and helping to usher them through. LCFF is the budget framework, Common Core is our standards framework, I understand that. I think it is much more important for me to build something sustainable here. Every school should envision its theory of action, and envision how it is doing it. That is what is ultimately sustainable.
San Ramon Valley Unified, Start Date: July 2016
Before becoming superintendent at San Ramon Valley Unified, Rick Schmitt was superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District in San Diego County. He began his career teaching history, economics and government. In 2012, Schmitt was promoted to deputy superintendent and in 2013 he became superintendent.
How has your transition been from San Diego to the Bay Area?
The transition was easy for a couple of reasons. The San Dieguito Union High School District, where I was a principal, and San Ramon Valley Unified are very similar communities. For the most part they are a parent community of high wage earners, high student achievement, informed parents and similar expectations of staff and kids. Even though the ZIP code is different, much of the work is very similar.
What are some of the challenges you face in the coming months?
The real work is helping students balance personal and academic growth. That is complicated. It is balancing centralization and decentralization. With the new standards, there is greater emphasis on decentralization, to reinvent ourselves, to rewrite, rethink and to deliver in different ways. I don’t think it takes 5 to 7 years in certain communities to pivot, because of who we are. We have moved pretty slow on some initiatives but we are not the same as Oakland and San Francisco.
What initiatives do you plan to launch in the near future?
There is always room to improve, and there are margins that are open for growth. The school board didn’t hire me to start over and blow it up. It is really a matter of creatively and honestly looking for ways to get better. I recently called Mary Shelton, the San Ramon Valley superintendent who left in July, to thank her. Her key initiatives will be my initiatives: centralization and best practices. It is not starting over. We have to honor the past and recognize our record of success.
What are your top goals for the district?
There are three: The first is being able to balance personal and academic continuous improvement for all students. The second goal is to focus on mental health, especially in this community with great expectations for each kid. The third piece is how to balance growth in enrollment.
What was the most difficult job you ever had in education?
The hardest job I have ever had was not superintendent, but high school principal. Both were CEO-type jobs. But as a high school principal I was out at meetings four or five nights a week. Now I can put my feet up at the end of the day. I have never felt overwhelmed by the work. I look forward to it every day – and that is real.