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Learning Matters: The key to a new school superintendent’s success often centers on getting to know the community

Learning Matters: The key to a new school superintendent’s success often centers on getting to know the community
Members of the Glendale Unified School Board watch new Supt. Vivian Ekchian sign her contract on May 21. (Tim Berger / Glendale News-Press)

“After setting a district vision, the most important decision a board makes is the selection and employment of a superintendent.”

So says the California School Boards Assn.’s human resources guide, “Maximizing School Board Leadership.”

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The copy I have in my file was published in 1996, but the statement still stands. Elected school boards are supposed to establish a district’s vision and hire professionals to get the job done.

Fulfilling this central responsibility, the Glendale Unified school board hired a new leader this week, Vivian Ekchian, the district’s first female superintendent.

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It will be the start of a new era for Glendale Unified, which like other districts describes its history by its superintendents. Like the Obama era or the Trump era on the national front, our Ekchian era is set to begin the first day in July.

Ekchian is already a Glendale resident, with years of leadership experience in Los Angeles Unified School District, including as interim superintendent.

She knows the challenges ahead for Glendale Unified, starting with needed budget cuts and the possible loss of the Sagebrush territory, which is a swath of the city of La Cañada Flintridge that has been part of Glendale Unified since La Cañada Unified, as we know it, was formed in the 1960s.

She certainly knows something about the delicate balance of power that exists between elected school boards and their chosen chief executives. However, as a new superintendent in this district, she will bring a new perspective and, along with the board, a new resolve for success.

In company with many others, I look forward to getting to know her and doing my part as a community member to help her succeed. One way to do that is to invite her out into the community.

A little over three years ago, the last time Glendale Unified was preparing to welcome a new superintendent, I spoke by phone with Jim Brown, Glendale Unified’s superintendent from 1996 to 2004.

I asked him what advice he’d give a new superintendent, and he shared with me his practice when arriving in a school community.

Brown, who led the Palo Alto district before coming to Glendale Unified, and had been in smaller districts before that, told me he’d start by sitting down for a visit with each board member individually. Most districts have five members.

At the end of the visits, he’d ask for the names of five people they thought he should meet.

Then he’d meet with those people — there was often a bit of overlap — and ask each of them for another five names. After the third round of meetings, he’d have a lot of information about community history, its people and its neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, each of those individuals would be left with a personal connection to the new superintendent and a better understanding of their vision for the district, as influenced and expanded by their own perspectives.

Luckily for Ekchian, Glendale Unified is easier to know than Los Angeles Unified. It’s a fraction of Los Angeles Unified’s size, both in student population and land area — big enough to be interesting yet small enough to be knowable. It’s also a community rich in organizations and individuals committed to helping public schools.

She’ll have the chance to meet regularly with the Glendale Unified-focused Glendale Educational Foundation, and I’ve little doubt she’ll get invitations to visit service groups including the local Rotary, Kiwanis, Elks, Lions, Soroptimists and YWCA, not to mention the PTAs and individual school foundations.

I can speak for two organizations of which I’m a part who’d love to get to know her.

The Women’s Civic League, which welcomes men as well as women, meets monthly from September through May, offering programs about community life by the people who shape it.

The schedule for the coming year is open, and we’d love to include her in our schedule.

I already invited her to an upcoming dinner in support of the Glendale Communitas Initiative, a local nonprofit focused on poverty prevention and recovery. As she knows, financial insecurity affects many families in the district.

She later emailed to let me know she’s already booked for that date but expressed interest in learning more about the organization. She seems as eager to engage with us as we are to know her.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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