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Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, who will take over as the first permanent African American superintendent of West Contra Costa Unified School District within a few weeks, has his sights set on closing longstanding achievement gaps between Black, Latino and white students at the 30,000-student district.
Based on his 23 years of professional experience in education, he has some concrete ideas for how to do that in this San Francisco Bay Area district, which includes Richmond and several surrounding communities.
Among the strategies that he points to are restorative justice alternatives to traditional school discipline, promoting rigorous, engaging and culturally relevant curriculum as well as project-based learning, and aligning curriculum with career pathways and industry occupational sectors.
But Hurst doesn’t just want to “throw things at people,” he said in an interview with EdSource. He wants to hear from everyone at the district to see what strategies they can come up with together.
“It’s about sitting down with teachers, support staff, with parents, district office personnel and all stakeholders to have this conversation about what the data is telling us,” Hurst said. “Here are our challenges, they are real, and we need to have a strategy, have a plan as to how to address those challenges.”
He will succeed Matthew Duffy, who announced in November that he would be leaving the district at the end of the school year after five years in his post. Hurst, 59, will begin May 17 and work alongside Duffy to transition into the role until Duffy leaves in July.
Hurst said he was concerned about the lagging average test scores of Black and Latino students, as well as their lower graduation rates and higher rates of expulsions and suspensions.
More than half of the district’s students are Latino, 14% are Black, 10% are white, and 8% are Asian. Two-thirds of the students qualify for free and reduced price meals.
Hurst said there’s a correlation between students not being in class due to suspensions and expulsion and their academic performance. He is committed to promoting restorative practices and social-emotional learning that will change students’ behavior without taking them out of class.
Having engaging, culturally relevant curriculum is also important to keeping students on track, he said. That’s had a positive impact on students everywhere he has worked, he said.
“I always share the story of my experience as an African American adolescent; I never saw in the curriculum anyone who looked like me or resembled me,” Hurst said. “Our kids need to see positive influences that resemble their cultures, their ethnic background and ethnic makeup.”
Like many large urban California districts, West Contra Costa Unified has experienced considerable budget woes in recent years. The district was able to close a very large deficit this year, but at the cost of eliminating positions, reining in expenses and borrowing from reserves.
Hurst said every district he has worked in, except for Poway Unified near San Diego, has served a large number of low-income students with not many resources.
Despite that, those districts have all been able to creatively offer engaging curriculum and programs like “maker-spaces” in which students can bring in materials from the house for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) projects.
Hurst has also used a “train the trainer” approach to professional development. That can involve, for example, a few teachers participating in a training session on restorative practices; they then teach their colleagues what they learned.
“I’ve learned to work within the constraints of a budget; it’s not an excuse to exclude students from these types of experiences,” Hurst said.
Hurst also assumes the post in the middle of the pandemic, with the task of guiding the district’s return to full-time, in-person instruction in the fall amid pressure from a group of parents. There are also massive inequalities in income levels among families in the district and the different communities it encompasses.
West Contra Costa Unified’s school board unanimously approved a three-year contract for Hurst with an annual base salary of $270,000 at a school board meeting April 14 when his appointment was announced.
“We are presenting to this community someone who can help — and I say help because nobody can do this work alone — take us to the next level,” board president Mister Phillips said at the school board meeting. “I look forward to working with him, and I have confidence in the experience and ability that he is bringing to this table.”
School board trustee Jamela Smith-Folds also expressed enthusiasm Wednesday about hiring Hurst and assured him that the responsibility of turning the district around won’t fall solely on him.
“We’re not going to let anyone hosannah you in and crucify you out,” Smith-Folds told Hurst at the meeting,” said, alluding to an often typical pattern of welcoming incoming superintendents as a savior for all the district’s problems, before disillusionment sets in, and they are forced out. “It’s going to take a community effort, to take all of us working together as one for a shared vision.”
Smith-Folds added that her biggest reason for choosing Hurst was hearing him speak about his wife, Crystal, a special education teacher who Hurst turns to as a sounding board for major decisions.
Hurst is only one of a tiny number of Black superintendents among the state’s 1,000-plus school districts. Although only 6% of the state’s student enrollment is Black, an even smaller percentage have been selected to run districts.
Currently, only four of the state’s 30 largest school districts have Black superintendents. They are Adam Clark of Mt. Diablo Unified, Kyla Johnson-Trammell of Oakland Unified, Vincent Matthews of San Francisco Unified and Harry “Doc” Ervin of Bakersfield City School District. Ervin has just been selected to be the next of superintendent of San Bernardino City Unified, and will take over there on July 1.
West Contra Costa Unified has had two African American interim superintendents in the past. But this is its first “permanent” African American appointee.
“I think it’s important for African-American, Latinx and students of color to see other people of color in leadership positions,” Hurst said. “I think it’s encouraging when we see people like President Obama and Kamala Harris. I think it’s inspirational, motivational, and I know people will look up to me as a positive African American role model.”
Daryl Camp, superintendent of San Lorenzo Unified near Oakland and president of the California Association for African American Superintendents and Administrators, or CAAASA, agreed.
“Given the number of students of color, I am certain that his presence will be appreciated by students and parents of color, as well as the faculty and staff of the district,” Camp said. “CAAASA is pleased that school boards are continuing to recognize the benefits of having a racially diverse administration by selecting persons of color to lead the district.”
Hurst got his start in the education field in San Diego County, after serving 12 years in the Marines; he served combat duty in Desert Storm and was a drill instructor, communications specialist and maintenance supervisor at Camp Pendleton. He received a bachelor of science in mathematics at California State University, San Marcos, in 1997 before teaching math, algebra, college preparation and computer science in Poway. He became assistant principal in Poway Unified just north of San Diego, where he helped open Westview High School in 2002.
Next, he worked as a principal under former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin. Hurst said he assisted in Bersin’s effort to transform three schools whose students were lagging significantly in test scores and other measures — San Diego, Kearny and Crawford high schools. In 2004, Bersin divided the three schools into 14 smaller 500-student academies, funded in part by millions of dollars in grants, mostly from the Gates foundation.
The small academy Hurst oversaw was geared toward students interested in careers in medicine, with a pathway for graduates to go directly into nursing assistant jobs.
“(The school) became a college-going community, and the beginning of a journey for me: where I could see how you can implement effective strategies in a struggling community and really change the outcomes for students and their lives,” Hurst said.
From San Diego, he became a principal in Oceanside in North San Diego County, “turning around” Jefferson Middle School and Oceanside High, he said.
In Oceanside, he implemented some of the same strategies he adopted at the small schools in San Diego, he said. The result was “double-digit growth” in academic test scores.
He went on to become associate superintendent of educational services at Oceanside Unified, where he oversaw the start of the Oceanside Promise — a program with a nonprofit arm intended to ensure all Oceanside students would graduate college or be career ready. He also boosted the district’s linked learning programs, which integrate academics with real-world work experiences.
He earned a master of arts in educational administration in 2008 and a Doctorate in Education in K-12 Leadership, at the University of Southern California in 2011.
Hurst became superintendent of the 4,500-student Othello School District in central Washington in 2016. He said his drawn to central Washington in part because of the beautiful countryside — his parents had lived in Yakima, and he and his wife always dreamed of living there. The main reason he took the job, though, was to be a part of the work happening there to improve student success.
During his five years at Othello, graduation rates increased from 71% to 87%, and absences declined by 33%, he said. He also implemented the district’s social-emotional learning standards prescribed by the state, and the number of children enrolled in preschool tripled, the news release said.
Othello School Board Vice President Jenn Stevenson said Hurst was known for “thinking outside of the box” and welcoming new ideas; he also brought “new views and a focus on equity” to the district, as well as focusing on equity and justice.
“Dr. Hurst works non-stop and is very dedicated to his job. I have seen him on the phone, while emailing someone and texting yet another about a different issue,” Stevenson said via email. “Chris is always trying to improve himself and looking for the good in others. Reading articles, research and more, both academic and not.”
Hurst also led the district’s transition to distance learning at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and to a hybrid model this school year in which students get part of their instruction via distance learning, and some in-person.
Othello’s student population this year is 91% Latino; 32% are English learners, and 75% qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. In the 2019-20 school year at West Contra Costa Unified, about 56% of its students were Latino, 31% were English learners, and 66% qualified for free and reduced-price lunch.
Hurst said he was drawn to West Contra Costa for a similar reason he was drawn to Othello: wanting to improve educational systems to ensure student success. He said he was also drawn by the district and school board’s passion for equity and mission statement to bring students a quality education so that they can better their community while being global citizens.
“It’s about giving back, and giving ourselves to the community of West Contra Costa,” Hurst said of he and his wife.
Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.
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