By Richard McCann
The Davis Joint Unified School District is searching for a new superintendent, and in an innovative step, DJUSD sponsored a series of community workshops and a survey. I was expecting the usual multiple guess survey but this one presented four questions asking for open ended answers. You can fill out the survey until February 16, starting at this website: link.
I share with you my answers and advice to the new superintendent (with some light editing).
Tell us the good things about your community.
The Davis community is extremely supportive of educational programs and highly educated itself thanks to UC Davis. It also is supportive of non profits that provide social and health services and protect the environment; Davis generally provides the majority of contributions for Yolo County-wide programs. Many people have well connected networks of friends that are very supportive–I have a saying that in Davis, it’s not 6 degrees of separation but rather you are connected with someone in 3 ways. The community attends many fundraising and other gatherings in support over various efforts.
Davis has many individuals who are national and global experts in their fields and are very willing to share that expertise when allowed by City and District staff. Much of the populace is politically engaged. Davis has been a leader in adopting environmentally sustainable policies and there are many in-town experts available to help the District develop strategies to provide sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change. The community also has many residents who can help in designing and providing social, mental and physical health services for students. Food and nutrition is an exceptional focus within the community, with the Saturday and Wednesday Farmers Markets as a public focal point.
Tell us the good things about your schools.
The community is extremely supportive of educational programs. Davis embraces innovative education models such as the very successful Da Vinci charter schools (two of our students graduated from there, one of them twice leaving for Davis High School and then returning) and King High School. Parents attend open houses in droves, even SRO at Da Vinci and DHS. Many parents and volunteers are well connected not only with local elected officials across the County, but also state and federal government appointees and officials. Students are highly motivated and have substantial initiative.
The teaching staff is generally dedicated, especially in the Da Vinci program. Da Vinci is a shining star with its holistic approach that reaches across subject matters and uses student team presentations to enhance learning. King High School also is a model for students who can’t fit into the traditional education tracks.
There are several programs that successfully go outside of the traditional high school paths to reach out into the community. The Citrus Circuits robotics team is one example where a largely volunteer group of mentors guide a student-led peer-to-peer apprenticeship program that not only has educated a couple thousand DJUSD students over the last decade, but also worked with hundreds of other sibling teams around the world. The team’s success brought the District $3 million in state matching funds for a new STEM robotics building.
What issues should the superintendent be aware of as he/she comes into the district?
DJUSD has several issues to face:
(1) District enrollment is declining and is relying on attracting students from neighboring communities to maintain service levels and funding. This is occurring because the permanent (non-UCD student) population is aging and resistant to adding the housing and businesses to accommodate younger families.
(2) While DJUSD leadership is highly supportive of innovative education models (three key District managers are former DaVinci principals), some of the staff is well established in their careers and less open to innovation.
(3) Staff is generally underpaid relative to other districts and to other employment opportunities for their education level. This creates a problem for attracting and retaining good staff. It also makes it more difficult to attract candidates from other careers to support CTE programs.
(4) The District’s student population lacks diversity and due to the distance between cities in Yolo, students don’t have much exposure to underprivileged populations.
(5) Due to being a wealthier community, DJUSD receives an amount of state funding near the bottom in the region. DJUSD has relied on parcel taxes to supplement funding, but those taxes are regressive, yet generally the only type allowed by the state constitution.
(6) While parents are hugely supportive, they can be overinvolved and excessively pushy for student achievements. The excessive number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes (almost more than twice the next highest school in the region) is one indicator of this pressure on students. Many parents mistakenly believe that (a) only elite universities will deliver a sufficient quality education and (b) that only grades and test scores are important for getting into elite colleges. Students aren’t always given the freedom to choose their own life paths, although graduates are increasingly taking a gap year to reflect on where to go next.
(7) DJUSD has not always been a good partner with the City of Davis on sustainability and resilience. DJUSD has not directly interacted with the City commissions and the community on how to plan its facilities and student transportation requirements in consideration of the community-wide plans.
(8) DJUSD has not been well integrated with UCD and the opportunities the campus presents both for DJUSD and UCD students. Creative thinking should be able to figure out how UCD can use DJUSD as a platform for testing new ideas in education and community outreach. UCD should be engaged because the quality of education that DJUSD delivers is a strong attractant for recruiting and retaining young faculty.
What skills, qualities or characteristics should the new superintendent possess to be successful here?
A superintendent foremost must be open to Davis’ unique ability to give exceptionally well-informed input on education modes and methods. DJUSD has an opportunity to be a test bed for innovative education models (e.g., Da Vinci, Citrus Circuits) that other districts can adopt. Davis presents a much more resilient education community where failures can be more easily accommodated and corrected. Along that vane, the superintendent should be open to innovation. The superintendent should enjoy going into the community and attending many events to meet more than parents and elected officials. (The previous superintendent John Bowles was quite good at this.) For this reason, the superintendent should live in Davis, or at least in Yolo County. And the candidate should have a good sense of humor and an ability to disarm resistance.