Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today
Two elementary school students in Stockton read a book with their tutor, a local high school student, during a pre-pandemic summer reading program at the library.

After more than 50 years in public education, veteran educator Don Shalvey is returning to his early stomping grounds in education to head an organization dedicated to improving the education outcomes of students in California’s Central Valley.

Shalvey will become executive director of San Joaquin A+, a nonprofit organization based in Stockton that was founded in 1996.

Don Shalvey

Don Shalvey

Until last week, Shalvey, a trailblazer in the charter school movement, was a deputy director in the education program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a leading funder of education initiatives in the United States and globally. Throughout his time at Gates, Shalvey commuted to Seattle, where the foundation is based, and to education organizations throughout the United States, but his family continued to live in Linden, a tiny town just east of Stockton, where he has owned a small ranch for decades.

“For the past 50 years, the San Joaquin Valley has been my home,” Shalvey said. “I’m thrilled to spend the final years of my career working to improve education for the young people in our wonderful Valley.”

At the same time, he said, “when you look at the long term achievement of youth in the Valley, it is disappointing when you compare it to everything else that is grown here.”

Shalvey’s first teaching job was in Merced where he taught middle school math and was a principal and administrator for 21 years. He then became assistant superintendent in Lodi, a 90-minute drive north on Highway 99. He moved from the Central Valley to become superintendent in the San Carlos School District south of San Francisco.

In that role, he emerged as a pioneer in the charter school movement. While superintendent in San Carlos, he sponsored the first charter school in California (and only the second in the nation), a K-8 elementary school called the San Carlos Charter Learning Center which opened in 1993, with the charter number #001.

Shalvey subsequently founded Aspire Charter Schools, one of the best-known charter management organizations in the nation, which now runs 40 charter schools in California.

He says the educational challenges young people face are enormous, adding that developing a home-grown, educated worked force is key to the Valley’s future.

“At the end of the day, 70% of the kids stay in the valley, and they become the workforce and professionals in the Valley, so we have to improve that,” he said.

But there is still a long way to go, especially among Latino and Black students, he notes. The national goal set by the Lumina Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that focuses on post-secondary degree attainment, is for at least 60% of people aged 25 or over to have an associate or bachelor’s degree or a workforce certificate of some kind by 2025. In the San Joaquin County, only 27% have achieved that goal, and even fewer in neighboring Stanislaus County, says Shalvey. That compares to 51% in California as a whole.

San Joaquin A+ expects to offer grants to local schools and colleges to launch what are called “Early College High School” programs. These allow students to take high school and college courses concurrently. In some cases, students can even earn a high school diploma along with an Associate degree by the time they graduate from high school. The focus will be on programs leading to careers in agriculture, education, health and logistics, a booming field dealing with the acquisition, storage and distribution of goods and services.

Another focus of the organization will be to address a major challenge facing California’s rural areas — recruiting, preparing and retaining teachers. “We want teachers to come to Stockton, not Sacramento or Modesto.” Too many teachers, he says, come to the area only with an emergency credential, which means they are not fully prepared. He wants to figure out ways not only to attract qualified teachers, but to keep them there.

One possible project, for which his organization already has seed money, at least to study its potential, is to establish a “teacher village” in Stockton, where beginning teachers could live for three years alongside other teachers.  After that, the plan is to work with local banks, “so that that home ownership is part of an early reality for teachers in the Central Valley, living in communities that honor the dignity of the profession.”

Shalvey says another goal will be to engage parents more actively in their schools.

“The more informed the community is around education, the more rigorous the education system will be,” he says. He also wants to promote greater participation in school board elections, and for parents to consider running to be on the board. “The quality of the board is indicative of the quality of the education kids will get.”

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