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Q&A With Superintendent Gil Mendoza

Patch sat down with Dr. Gil Mendoza, Superintendent for the Sumner School District, to ask the hard questions and see what really matters to the kids and the future of the public school system.

What does it take to run a district? Patch asked Dr. Gil Mendoza, the Superintendent of the , about the challenges and joys of public education.

How did you start your educational career and how did you end up in Sumner? I came to education on the more non-traditional route. When I went to college [at Gonzaga University] and started as an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to go into education, and got all my degrees, got all my credentials […] but I went to college on an ROTC scholarship. The army wasn't hiring teachers and there were no teaching jobs in Washington state, so I went into the military and did four and-a-half years of active and reserve duty, then went down to Dallas to work for a private company. [When] I finally found an education job, it wasn't a teaching job, but it was a specialist job in Washington state. I was a career counselor [for Rogers High School]. I worked there for about nine years and then worked at Bates Technical College in Tacoma. While I was there, I got my doctorate and superintendent certification, went into administration for the Tacoma School District and was blessed to become superintendent of the Sumner School District about three and a half years ago.

Does your military background help you at all when you're dealing with students? When I was in the military, I dealt with a lot of 18-year-olds, but I think the best background was growing up in a family with 11 siblings. I was in the middle of my family. The military background has been useful in understanding organizations and leadership. But really, the best leadership training I got was in the Tacoma School District. In the military, there is a command hierarchy and you get orders from the top. In the school system, you don't really have orders; you collaborate with the people around you.

What's your biggest passion in education? I think my biggest passion is teaching kids to be life-long learners. We can teach all the content we want, but if a kid can't apply it to their experiences in society, then they are in kind of a vacuum and it doesn't do a lot of good. Content is needed; if you can read, write, do science and learn about citizenship and government, those are all extremely valuable, but as a career counselor, you put all that together and help them figure out what they like, what they're all about and what they have a passion for, and use it in a secondary education perspective. That's what I'm passionate about – helping them find what they want to be.

There seems to be a recent shift from students preparing for a college education to students embracing a trade or apprenticeship after high school. What do you think of that? In the educational system, we're more accepting now of the choices kids have to make. The choices kids have now are no different than the choices I had to make when I graduated in 1972, but I think it's really more of a change in cultural attitude about what a kid can do right when they get out of high school. Our obligation is to help them seek a passion and get them ready for that. Getting kids ready for college is the same as getting them ready for a trade. The prerequisites from an academic standpoint are the same for both. You have to have certain proficiencies for kids who want to go to an apprenticeship, a community college, a tech college or a four-year university. The requirements are all pretty comparable.

A big goal for the Sumner School District in 2011 is to raise math scores district-wide by 10 percent. How will you do that? We've set it as a priority. Adequate yearly progress standards set by the federal government have found us to be a district in progress. We're in that category because we need to improve math scores in certain [areas] but it doesn't mean that we are low in math across the board. If we can increase the number of kids who meet federal standards in math by 10 percent we will have met the standards they have put in place for us. We have done a lot, from adopting math curriculums to bringing on supplemental programs to match that curriculum. If you and I are both teaching Algebra 1 at separate schools, we want to make sure our intentions are the same so that there aren't double standards in our district. This hopefully starts conversations and collaborations among teachers. If I see your kids are getting it a lot better than mine, I should be having a conversation with you and learning from you, so I can do better with my kids. We've invested with technology, textbooks and time. Our late starts on Wednesdays focus math in our district and how to improve.

What's the biggest challenge facing the Sumner School District in 2011? To meet our public mission and obligations with fewer resources. That is always the challenge. Given some of the outside pressures that we don't control (like the economy and state budget), we're trying to be responsive to the kids right now that we have in our charge while looking forward to the new requirements that might be coming down for the kids coming to us at lower grade levels. Graduate requirements change every year or so. This year's ninth graders have a different requirement than this year's seniors had. How do we retool and restructure ourselves to help our students meet the requirements the future kids need to graduate? That's always our challenge: to deal with outside pressures, diminished resources and work with the families that trust us with their kids every day.

Has the Sumner School District focused much of its efforts on improving classroom technology? Voters passed a bond in 2007 that allowed us to do a lot of (school) remodels. All of our new or modernized schools have state-of-the-art technology: smart boards, amplification systems and computers. We're allowed to use capital dollars to buy technology equipment for those schools. When we remodeled the schools, the market was good, so we came in under budget. That allowed us to purchase technologies for our other schools as well. We've always speculated on the possibility of running a technology levy – I'm not certain if that will be a requirement eventually or if we need it right now, but we do recognize the need for technology. The Washington State Assessment System says that we will all have to deliver that medium on state assessments by 2015, and we'll all have to do it online. We have to make sure our technology will be up to standards. I'm not sure how the state will help us meet those needs or if they give us some leniency, but our goal is to be ready to do that.

District employees have already taken some furlough days this year. Are there more to come? I can't speak to that. It was an individual and group choice [to take furlough days in 2010]. One of our bargaining groups brought it to the district and said they wanted to take furlough days so that none of our staff or teachers lost their jobs. It set the stage, and everyone said it was a good thing to do. It was a group choice and not something that we can choose or mandate along the way. Teachers have already lost days due to state funding. They were forced to lose two days [this school year] and our maintenance and operations staffs were the first people to come and offer furlough days. It was very generous of them.

What's something that kids today face that they didn't have to 10 years ago? There's a lot more pressure to do well in school today. Post-secondary schools, and I mean everything from an apprenticeship to four-year college, are not equipped to accept every kid. We are required to prepare every kid for post-secondary, and there's a lot of pressure on him or her to do well early. A lot of kids come to high school and say, 'I'm going to get my feet wet, figure it out for a while, socialize a little bit.' They get behind a little in their grades and then they get to their sophomore or junior years and think, 'Man, every grade was important, from ninth grade on,' and then they're scrambling. I think there more pressure to start making early decisions about what they want to do after high school. Given changing graduation requirements, I don't think they are able to do that as early as we'd like them to. Part of the challenge is diminishing resources in schools. I don't think we provide them with the level of service that we could to help them make those good choices. Is it our priority to help them do better in class, or to give them more comprehensive [career] guidance? I also think that our kids have a lot more unanswered questions than they did 10 years ago; the world is changing so rapidly around them.

Cyber-bullying is a hot topic in the media and school districts around the country. How is your district addressing this issue? We have a board policy and procedure set in place. We have due process for students and we clearly define what bullying is about. As a district, we're no different than any other. What a student does outside of school and in their social networks, e-mail, etc. – we have no purview over. We just don't ethnically, morally or legally. When it comes into the school day and affects what we do have control over, then it becomes our business. We do intervene; we do intercede when it impacts students on a school day, but outside that we have no control. We address the behaviors students manifest during the school day. If it becomes a serious or dangerous issue, we might contact legal counsel and law enforcement to do a threat assessment, and will collaborate with other agencies to come to a resolution.

If you could tell parents one thing about school-age kids, or if there was one thing you wish parents knew about students, what would it be? If I were to make a general statement, I would say, help your child learn what he or she loves in life. I wish parents had the right information at the right time to help their children make critical decisions. There are certain moments, whether it's in pre-kindergarten, middle or high school, when decisions have to be made. Sometimes they are decisions at home, like, 'What am I going to do to motivate my kid? What can I do to help my child get the right information they need for high school?' I wish there was a magic button that I could press to let every parent knew when those critical decision points are; what repertoire the student needs to make those decisions from an informed standpoint to help exponentially increase their success. It [involves questions like], 'What classes should I take? What schools should I look at?'

There has been a lot of talk about 'Waiting For Superman' and the following criticisms of the public school system. Many say it's inherently damaged. What would you say to that? I would disagree we are inherently damaged. We are factually underfunded for the charges we're given. As the world has grown and changed, most things that someone is expected to teach children about [the world] has inherently fallen on the public school system. They expect us to meet all wraparound services, all needs, but if they aren't available or not funded, we're still expected to deliver it. And so I thought the sections of the movie I saw that were an indictment on the school system were obtuse and myopic. It seemed as much a promotion for charter schools as it was an indictment on the public school system. And a study coming out of Harvard University on charter schools shows that students in public schools do not do inherently better than kids in public schools. That's over a long-term study. Charter schools can be selective in who they take. We take every student who walks through our door. That's our charge, and to me that really speaks to the professionalism and capacity that public schools have to offer.

Do you think students today are well-prepared to go out in the world and are ready to be tomorrow's leaders? I think they are being better prepared for it than they were 10 years ago. I can only speak of the high schools in this district. Bonney Lake and Sumner High Schools have amazing leadership programs for the kids. The ethos of what those schools are about is community service. We have a nucleus of caring adults in both of our high schools. Bonney Lake High School does Beautify Bonney Lake in the spring and both high schools do a food drive [for the holidays]. This year,  combined to support our community. Our kids are learning a lot about being responsible; they see their friends living in this community and a lot of their parents grew up in the community, so they think, 'Hey, I better start being involved and start participating.'

What's something you wish students knew about life in high school? When I talk to ninth graders, I tell them, 'Congratulations, you've just earned a $30,000 full-ride scholarship to four years of school,' because that's what your parents are paying in taxes to support you. It's a little over $7,000 a year and it's all for you. It's all free; take advantage of that scholarship because it's your last opportunity for a free public education. Take full advantage of it. Be proud. Somebody sponsored you to be here; grow and have fun. High school should be fun. Kids lose a bit of that innocence when they go from elementary to junior high. The stakes still aren't as high when you're in middle school and you can have that socialization, but in high school those stakes are very high. You always want kids to have fun and enjoy it, because high school really is a magical time in a person's life. You can reflect on your own experience. You just want kids to look back on it fondly, regardless of what their opportunities and choices and manifestations are when they are out of high school. You want them to look back and say, 'High school was a special time for me, I really enjoyed it and it really got me ready for what I'm doing now, because (hopefully) I'm still doing something I love.' That's really our dream for the kids.

Jerry Vandenberg December 27, 2010 at 06:25 PM
Would you be interested in the SSD Career Day program at Sumner and BL High Schools on Jan. 26th?
Lauren Padgett December 28, 2010 at 12:35 AM
Absolutely! Email me at lauren.padgett@patch.com, I'd love to hear more!

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