I still remember my first day in the San Joaquin Valley. It was more than 50 years ago, when I traveled across the country from my hometown of Philadelphia and arrived in the central valley ready to inspire the next generation of mathematicians from my seventh-grade classroom.
As a city kid at the time, it was a culture shock to arrive in this region — with the most fertile soil in the world — where farmers supply the nation with fruits and vegetables year-round. Over my time here, I’ve gotten to better know and love the great beauty of our Delta waterways, the flavors of our Lodi Zinfandels, and the wonderful diversity, culture and resilience of the City of Stockton. I grew to love everything about it.
I still do. That’s why, through fifty years of working in education, I’ve kept my home base here. And it’s why I’m proud to say that I’m returning to devote 100% of my time to the students and families of San Joaquin County as the new CEO of a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing educational opportunity in our region since 1996.
In the Valley, the quality of what we cultivate — our grapes, walnuts, cherries, and tomatoes — is known for being among the very best in the world. We envision a world where our education system is known for the same high quality, where we cultivate minds as well as we cultivate crops.
In the city of Stockton for example, the mayor and other leaders have recently taken important strides by creating an A-G for all graduation requirement to make sure students have the credits they need to attend state colleges, and by moving forward with a Stockton Scholars initiative that offers tuition to any graduating Stockton students. But overall student performance remains low, with just 30% of students reading and on grade level and 21% on grade level in math, and the District has been burdened by a lack of stable and consistent leadership at the School Board level.
I hope to bring my experience thinking globally over the last 10 years to support our leaders to make positive change locally. And taking bold steps toward equity in our education system has never been more important, as the Covid-19 pandemic deepens inequities along lines of race and class.
There are a few areas that I believe are particularly crucial for us to create a more equitable and successful education system, particularly in the era of Covid-19 and amid a national push for racial justice and equity:
1. Create innovative education programs and partnerships to fuel our workforce. As we figure out how to move through and past the great challenges created by this global health crises, the new normal will demand more innovative programs to make up the gap created. What could this look like? The possibilities are endless, but here are a few ideas: Early college high school programs that better align with career pathways and allow students to gain college credits while still in high school to save their families money are showing great promise nationally; paid internship experience in vocational paths that aligns to the modern workforce; and more nimble school environments that are able to better tailor instruction to meet student and family needs.
2. Treat parents as partners — not just during the pandemic. During the pandemic, parents have stepped up in so many ways. In many cases, they’ve filled in as surrogate teachers while schools have been closed. While we can’t expect parents to sustain this forever, our school district leaders need to do more to see parents as partners in the long term.
This includes keeping parents better informed about their children’s education progress, and making sure parents have a platform to educate their peers about the importance of local school boards and the decisions elected leaders are making that impact their children’s education. I’ve learned in my many years as an educator, that if we are going to improve outcomes for the lower income and minority children who suffer the most from our inequitable system, it starts with working with their parents and families to elevate their voice in the discussion.
3. Make sure our students have the great educators they need. I believe there’s no higher calling than the call to teach. It’s still the hardest job I ever had, and the profession I respect the most. School districts in the Valley have struggled with recruiting top-notch and diverse teaching talent. We need a strategy to recruit qualified STEM instructors, teachers with experience in special education, and teachers of color, who reflect the student population in Valley communities like Stockton.
We should also consider implementing more creative solutions, like a Teachers Village, where housing is provided to support teachers from the area or those interested in moving here. Lastly, we need to help teachers to be prepared to educate students remotely, as well as a blended in-person/remote approach. Using a combination of these strategies to strengthen our teaching corps is vital to the Valley’s future.
Despite the enormous public health, economic and educational challenges ahead of us, I remain as excited and optimistic now about the future of our Valley as I’ve been at any other moment during the past 50 years of living here. I know that we can work together to move our communities forward.
Don Shalvey is the CEO of San Joaquin A+, a nonprofit organization of educators, business leaders, active citizens and philanthropists based in Stockton that works to improve local schools.
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