Biden chooses San Diego Unified superintendent as deputy education secretary
President-elect Joe Biden nominated San Diego Unified Supt. Cindy Marten as his deputy secretary of education, the administration announced Monday.
Marten, who since 2013 has led California’s second-largest school district, with roughly 100,000 students, is expected to serve in the post under the leadership of Biden’s nominated Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s schools chief. Marten’s nomination also awaits Senate approval.
“I am honored to serve alongside @teachcardona to restore our education system – putting teachers, students, and parents first. Work Hard. Be Kind. Dream Big. Let’s do this!” Marten tweeted on Monday morning.
Marten will remain superintendent until she is confirmed by the Senate, which district officials expect may happen in February.
In a closed meeting Sunday, the San Diego Unified School Board chose Area Supt. Lamont Jackson to serve as interim superintendent once Marten moves on to her new position.
Jackson, who oversees the district area that includes Morse, Mira Mesa, Clairemont and University City high schools, was previously the district’s chief human resources officer. Jackson will remain interim superintendent until the end of the 2021 calendar year, while the board will discuss in upcoming weeks how to search for a new superintendent.
“This district and our community are facing enormous challenges over the course of this year getting through the pandemic, getting our schools reopened, helping our students recover from what they’ve experienced both academically and socially, emotionally,” said San Diego Unified School Board President Richard Barrera. “It’s very important that we have stability and continuity in the leadership of the district as we go through this year.”
Biden in an announcement cited San Diego Unified’s graduation rate and reading growth on national standardized tests, saying both exceed those of other large school districts.
Last year San Diego Unified had a 88.6% graduation rate, which was 1% better than the statewide average and up from 86.6% in 2017.
Biden also highlighted Marten’s 17 years as a classroom teacher and her 10 years working as principal at Central Elementary in City Heights, where she helped build a biliteracy program, an arts program, a school garden, preschool and after-school programs, a day care for employees’ children and a community health and wellness center.
Before arriving at Central, Marten worked in Poway Unified as a teacher and literacy specialist and as a teacher at Beth Israel Day School.
San Diego Unified recently received recognition at the state and national levels for outperforming similar school districts, which is why some officials believe Marten was picked.
“There’s been a lot of national attention on what’s going on in San Diego,” said John Lee Evans, former San Diego Unified board president.
In 2019 San Diego Unified was one of two large urban districts nationwide to outperform the average for urban districts on national math and reading test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders.
The district also received praise in recent years from multiple think tanks, including the Learning Policy Institute, whose chief executive, Linda Darling-Hammond, heads the California state school board and Biden’s education transition team.
Some strategies San Diego Unified used to improve schools include expanding arts programs, focusing on literacy instruction and using data and feedback to improve teaching and student learning, Marten has said.
Under her leadership San Diego Unified secured a $3.5-billion bond program that has been funding technology and large-scale upgrades to schools.
The district also has implemented several racial equity reforms, including changing the way students are graded to be less punitive, requiring “restorative” rather than punitive discipline, and creating an ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation.
Marten’s term has not been without controversy. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, San Diego Unified has remained closed to regular in-person instruction and has been providing in-person support to a few students, generating anger among parents who say children are falling behind and suffering emotionally.
When the school board renewed Marten’s contract in 2019, the board said she had ensured stability in the district and raised performance for Black and Latino students but failed to turn around Lincoln High School, one of the district’s historically struggling schools.
The board also said the district had not succeeded in lowering chronic student absenteeism rates or halting declining enrollment, particularly in preschool.
Barrera said Biden’s choice signals that he wants to invest in and scale up the strategies San Diego Unified uses to improve schools.
“We’re very proud that the work that Cindy has led in San Diego for the past seven and a half years has been recognized on a national level, and now the president-elect wants to bring that work across the country,” Barrera said. “I think it’s a very important moment for our kids because it signals a seriousness on the part of the federal government to invest in public education as a priority, and that’s something that frankly we really have never seen.”
Marten said she has spoken with the school board about ensuring a “seamless transition” once she is confirmed and leaves the district.
“I have had the joy of watching some of our students learn to read for the first time. I’ve seen others become the first in their families to graduate from college,” she wrote in a letter to San Diego Unified families Monday morning.
“I had the privilege of seeing the middle school I attended be replaced by a brand new state-of-the-art building as part of an $8 billion bond program. It is the love and support of my hometown that has made all of this possible, and I am deeply grateful for having been entrusted with the sacred responsibility of educating your children.”
Marten, who is from a Chicago suburb, moved with her family to San Diego at a young age. She attended San Diego Unified’s Hardy Elementary and Horace Mann Middle schools as well as the private La Jolla Country Day School.
Marten has said she was inspired to become a teacher by her older brother Charley Cohen, who is developmentally disabled. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse and a master’s in curriculum and instruction from UC San Diego.
4:05 p.m. Jan. 18, 2021: This story has been updated to include information about the school board’s pick of interim superintendent.
4:05 p.m. Jan. 18, 2021: This story has been updated to include more comments from Superintendent Cindy Marten and more information about the district.
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