What do you want in the next Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools?
How about someone who clearly demonstrates a passion for helping students? Or someone who has been on the ground floor of some of the most innovative programs developed over the past five years? Or would you prefer a visionary who has transformed one of the county’s lowest-performing school districts into the highest?
Unfortunately, each voter must pick just one in the June 5 primary. It’s likely two of these worthy candidates will advance to a runoff in November, so we’ll have a chance to hear even more about their plans, priorities and abilities. Everyone should pay attention; these three administrators not only represent some of our region’s best thinking, one of them will have an enormous impact on the future of our children and region.
Our editorial board is leaning, ever so slightly, toward Don Davis. His story of transformation in Waterford is inspirational. He didn’t “drill and kill” the students into test-taking zombies; he didn’t ignore the dire economic situation in which most of his students live, nor did he wring his hands in despair over a resource-killing recession.
He concentrated on one thing – “improving instruction.”
The most important role of any school superintendent isn’t to teach students, it’s to teach teachers. By pushing his teachers to reach their potential, Davis knew they would soon do the same for the district’s 1,765 students. “We are people who work with people to develop people, and we do that through the medium of instruction,” he said.
The results are remarkable. Waterford was among the worst schools in 2004, but by 2013 had become the state’s first Title I school to meet all standards. It has the highest percentage of students prepared for college or career. It won a U.S. News & World Report silver medal three years running. The accolades began arriving in 2007 when Davis was Waterford High’s principal and it was named a “Distinguished School;” they’ve not stopped.
But it’s a fair question: Can Davis find similar success moving from a small district to a multi-layered organization with responsibility for 106,000 students across 25 districts with programs for adults, disabled students and those learning technical trades?
We don’t know, but clearly Kuykendall can. He’s been doing it for six years. He helped start the VOLT Institute, which trains students for high-demand machinist jobs. He has been involved in SCOE’s Foothill Horizons camp, in technology education and programs for kids gifted in academics and the arts. Kuykendall understands the office’s $260 million budget and, as assistant superintendent, has helped managed a staff of 1,100. We have no doubt he would not only do the job well, but his approach would drive the organization to new heights.
When we asked about student and teacher safety, he brought up suicide prevention, bullying and access to mental health professionals. He was the most invested in adult education, noting SCOE helped 700 adults earn diplomas. And he worries about rising pension costs.
Sanford has shown equal skill in running the Gratton School District, having no debt or outstanding bonds. She has instituted a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program that is impressive for a small district and her students test well. But transitioning from a district of 135 students to an agency that has 10 times that many “alternative” students alone (including some in juvenile hall), we fear is a leap too far.
Impressive as all three are, in the end our board was most inspired by Davis’s vision.
“We need to change the narrative of the Central Valley as the Appalachia of the West,” he said. “You know what? We’re not.
“There are many wonderful things happening across this region … (as superintendent) I’ll talk about the scope of programs at Modesto City Schools; I’ll talk about the job training that’s going on in Patterson, the use of technology across all of our systems. We can tell our story that this is the place to come.”