By Nicholas von Wettberg
Two of the five seats on the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Board of Education are up for grabs, in the November General Election, and, thus far, only one person has formally announced their candidacy.
The Vanguard opens up its coverage of the race, featuring a recent interview with Bob Poppenga, a professor of veterinary toxicology at UC Davis who ran for a seat on the Board back in November 2014.
Poppenga is the parent of two DJUSD students, and served on the district’s Professional Development Action Team during the strategic planning process, and was on the district’s CTE/STEAM (Career Technical Education/Science, Technology Engineering, Arts, Math) Strategic Planning Committee.
Vanguard: Tell us about the early stages of the campaign.
Poppenga: “Well, I felt that it was important to get out early, and try and get a good start and get the organization together. The focus now is on the June 7 primary but I wanted to have all the pieces in place to get out early and strong. I think probably the school board race will not get started in earnest until after July 4, but in 2014 that was one of the major races because there wasn’t a lot of other competition. Now it’s going to be President, Senate, State Assembly, State Senate…so I think there’s going to be a lot of things going on, so you’ve got all that background, and it will be interesting to see where people’s attention is on more local races, like the school board. So we won’t have the city council, which is probably an advantage. That election will be over in June.”
Vanguard: What did you take away from your previous experience running for school board?
Poppenga: “I think a neophyte doesn’t realize all the moving pieces in a campaign, even for something like school board, and I think the one thing that’s so important is to have a dedicated team around you that can do a lot of the legwork, and provide a lot of good input and advice. I really do believe that it’s so important to make the personal contact and often times it’s more than just the one contact, so I think that I tried to get out and walk around the neighborhoods last time in 2014 and had people help me walk the neighborhoods and knock on doors. That takes a lot of people power so I think that’s one of the things that I wanted to try, lay the groundwork now so that in the fall we can actually get out and knock on doors. That’s probably the most important thing.”
Vanguard: Speaking of elections, after hearing the results of a survey the board is ready to decide on a final amount for the school parcel tax. Where do you come out on the measure?
Poppenga: “I think the school parcel tax is critical to the district and its overall percentage of the school budget, right now at the 620 [dollars] or so level. I understand the philosophy of trying to do these surveys ahead of time but you know, the actual level, it seems to be a little bit putting the cart before the horse – because I think you should say, ‘here are the programs that we need, here are the programs that we want, how much is it going to cost,’ then go out with ‘is this going to be, is this what we really need to do, what we really want to do, is the community going to support that?’
“It seems to me that they’re throwing these numbers out to try and gauge the support, and I have not seen the survey, I don’t know the questions that they’re asking but I think it’s better if you can approach the electorate with ‘here’s what we feel we need for these reasons, and the status quo is going to remain if we get the 620 but here’s the other things we’d like to do at support for a higher parcel tax.’
“You know, I think it’s incredibly important and I’ve actually come out with an Enterprise letter saying that it is important and we need to support it as a community.”
Vanguard: We keep seeing how difficult it’s becoming for schools to retain teachers, for a number of different reasons – some are retiring, some are moving, and so forth. What are your feelings on this, as an educator?
Poppenga: Well, obviously they’re in the process of renegotiating the contract for the teachers. I think in general there’s three areas that I think I would focus on, and the most important component to a district are the quality of the teachers. And I think there is increasing competition for good teachers, particularly in areas like the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] subject areas. The schools of education are not producing enough, so Davis has to be an attractive place for teachers to come.
“If you talk to the teachers, the compensation is very important and I think we do have to be competitive. Davis is an expensive place to live and that was one of the things that I brought up in 2014 – actually how many teachers, particularly the new teachers to the district, how many of them can afford to live in Davis? I haven’t seen any numbers. I would suspect it would be hard to find those numbers, but a lot of the teachers that have been around a number of years probably live in Davis because they could afford Davis – but the newer teachers, the younger teachers, particularly if they don’t have spouses that are also working, I think it’s a challenge.
“As a community, one of the important things is to decide whether it’s important for teachers and their families to live in the community in which they teach. I come down on the side, yeah it’s important. I think it would be interesting to know the numbers, sort of track the trends over a period of time but I think teachers also deserve a really robust professional development program. The working conditions, however, we can improve it within our resources – I think we should try and do it. I think you have to listen to teachers, I think they have to feel like they have a place at the table. And certainly that would be a focus of mine. Certainly one area [of focus is] teachers, because they’re so important.
“Sort of the two other main areas of focus, having come from the University, knowing the University uses the school district as a recruiting tool for their faculty, finding ways that the University can truly invest in the quality of education in Davis. That was something I brought up in 2014 as well, and I think the important thing is to figure out how to do it on a sustainable basis in more of an institution-to-institution collaboration rather than an individual-to-individual collaboration, because those people could be gone next year and if it’s more institutional to institutional then it’s more sustainable.
“The vet school, I sort of hope this might be a model down the road that the University could adopt more broadly. The vet school is committed to helping out with a veterinary science emphasis at the high school as far as career and technical education, and they’re starting a veterinary science course at the high school. So as soon as I found that out, I had gotten the high school coordinator together with our administration at the vet school and I think that, down the road, there will be some opportunities to bring some students on the campus of the vet school in some internship opportunities. And I think that’s more what the University should be providing, in terms of opportunities for high school kids. I sort of view that as a model that maybe other people in the University could look at and adopt…it’s mutually beneficial. It’s beneficial to the schools because we have a world-class University right next door that could be so useful at multiple levels. And there is collaboration now – don’t get me wrong, it happens but it’s more ad hoc, you know it’s more individual-to-individual, and I really think that has to be looked at holistically, and more sustainably, but I think we can partner with a lot of local institutions more effectively than we are, and so that would be an area of focus I think.”
Vanguard: Picking up on the STEM theme, what about providing the right training, and providing the right avenues of opportunity for high school students?
Poppenga: “And it doesn’t really even have to be for those kids that are intending to go to college. I mean, I think it can really help with kids that are maybe looking at community college. You know, I think STEM is so important in so many non-college career pathways now because even on a factory floor you have to have computer skills and you have to have math skills. I would love to see the University offer some summer programs for at-risk kids, kids that don’t otherwise have programs to stimulate them during the summer. Their parents can’t afford to pay a lot of money for summer camps. I think that’s something that a segment of the University could help address. I mean they have summer camp programs now. Figure out ways to offer it at low-cost or no cost to kids that can’t otherwise afford those programs.
“The STEM program is a natural extension of what I do now. I am a scientist, I am a veterinarian, and I am in an academic institution. I think even the non-traditional STEM career pathways – let’s just take, for example, art. I think you can tie so many of the STEM topics into art. I mean there is a science behind art. I think that’s important, to put the STEM topics throughout the curriculum. It’s not just for the kids that are going to be the next PhD candidate. It’s cross disciplines and it’s sort of a holistic approach to education but I think being able to understand math and science and the areas of art is important.
“In terms of career and technical education, I think it’s probably something that in Davis has been overlooked a little bit. And I think that’s where partnerships come into play, because I think it’s difficult for one district to meet all of the needs of every student and so I think that’s there’s an opportunity even at the county level to have some collaborative programs – where maybe Davis is a place for students that are interested in science, but maybe there’s another program in a different district that would really meet the needs for people that want to do some other type of STEM career path. I don’t think our district has the resources to be number one in every different area of STEM or CTE. It’s sort of a hybrid because I think you really have to develop those pathways where, okay, maybe a student peels off, doesn’t have any interest in community college or the University. You know, they want to be a carpenter. Well you have to have math skills to be a carpenter. But then there’s a student that maybe wants to do a two-year community college and, just by example, in veterinary medicine you can become a veterinary technician after two years so you work in the veterinary field but you’re not a veterinarian – you’re a veterinary nurse.
“But if you want to be a veterinarian you’re sort of looking at the University … well, maybe you don’t want to do eight years to get your DVM but you want to be an animal scientist so you can do a bachelor’s degree in animal science and still deal with animals. But then for those that really want to do additional training they can do a DVM or PhD in veterinary science so you’ve got this pathway that’s sort of integrative, so that people can peel off in a lot of different ways, to still deal with animals.”
Vanguard: The status of the district’s AIM program has been a hot-button topic, especially with Davis parents. How do you feel the issue should be handled?
Poppenga: “Well, it’s been very controversial in Davis and I think it’s really unfortunate that the community has not been able to come to some sort of common ground, at least, or come up with some sort of compromise on that. It seems to be very polarizing. My view is that there are children that learn differently and that their needs need to be addressed. I think maybe even the University can help in that regard, providing maybe some challenging opportunities for the kids that are academically advanced. I firmly believe that every group, whether you’re talking about at-risk kids – there’s [such] a lot of at-risk kids that it’s hard to identify them because they haven’t had the opportunities to excel but they’re there, so I think really one of the challenges is to provide really the best available ways to identify those kids and give them opportunities to excel. I think if you go to the Healthy Kids Survey, and you dig down into some of the numbers there, that there are a significant number of kids that don’t feel challenged. I think that’s something that I would certainly be interested in – trying to find ways to challenge every kid, no matter what their background is.
“In the past, it (AIM) was a pretty good reflection of the diversity of the community and this past year that’s changed. I just don’t think that we can overlook the kids that really need to be challenged in our public education. We need to obviously offer opportunities for the kids that don’t have opportunities, but we can’t hold any kids back. That’s the bottom line.”
Vanguard: That leads us to the board’s number one priority so far this year, which is figuring out ways to close the achievement gap. We know it’s out there. How do we match kids up correctly?
Poppenga: “Well, I think you have to put a lot effort in early. At the county level, there’s an effort to increase the sales tax county-wide to enhance the preschool opportunities of kids and I think that…everything I understand about preschool and kindergarten, [with] quality preschool and quality kindergarten, the payoff is tremendous. For every dollar you invest in quality preschool you gain back multiples of that later on. I really think that’s a great effort countywide. I think if kids can read at grade level by third grade all the data indicates that those kids are going to do much better than kids that can’t read at grade level by third grade. I think those programs are incredibly important. I think it’s important to try and involve the parents of at-risk kids.
“I think there are ways, reading programs… I think that’s really where the community can provide a lot of added value. I’m on the Executive Board of Explorit Science Center, at UC Davis, and they have summer camps and it hasn’t happened yet but I think it would be wonderful to have slots in the summer camp program and explore it for at-risk kids. You know you try to identify those kids and provide them opportunities for a two-week summer camp that explores nature or whatever. I think we’re starting to move in that direction and I think the emphasis on those early opportunities for at-risk kids is important. One of the most important things is, are they reading at grade level? One of the things I think that my science background – one of the things that I’m very interested in is, if you have a program, what are the desired outcomes?
“What are you hoping to achieve with this particular program? So it’s maybe a summer reading program. We’re putting resources into the program, what do we hope to get out of that program, then measure whether we’re achieving those outcomes. Is the program effective? And I don’t think we do enough of that. If we’re not achieving those outcomes, how can we change those programs to make them better to achieve the outcomes that we desire? And that’s part of spending money wisely. I mean, that’s part of saying [that] we have limited resources, let’s put it into programs that work. So I think there can be significant improvement in that area.”