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California Schools on the Frontlines of the Pandemic

I have taught and prepared future school leaders at several institutions of higher education here in California, and across the country. While I have taught specific courses in leadership, politics, human capital, and history, I don’t ever recall addressing the type of issue that school leaders are dealing with today: a worldwide health crisis that has shut down schools since mid-March with no clear end in sight.

In addition to my work in higher education, I have proudly served as superintendent of schools in both the Long Beach and San Diego school systems, as well as the Federal Court monitor in Los Angeles, our state’s largest school system. In my 50-plus year career in education, I have handled many crises, including riots, gang warfare, fires, floods, and drownings—events that unfortunately put students and staff in harm’s way. Each of these tragedies had a beginning, a mid-point and an end or, in the case of gang warfare, a time when the severity of the crisis abated.

This is not the case today in terms of what our school leaders are facing. They, like all of us, don’t know when this is going to end and what the human casualty implications are going to be before this is over. I used to put the following question to those who sought my advice about whether or not they should become a superintendent: “Can you handle a high degree of ambiguity”? Today’s crisis is much more than an occasional “high degree of ambiguity.” It is a 24/7 uncertainty that has to take a profound emotional toll on all those who are tasked with ensuring the health and safety of thousands of students and staffs in our school settings.

Since July 1st, I’ve been capturing the voices of these California school leaders in a special podcast series, sponsored by EdSource and the Ball/Frost Group. We’ve listened to the superintendents in Hemet, San Jose, Victor Valley, Fresno and Sonoma Valley tell their remarkable stories of leading during this unprecedented crisis. Each has described the herculean efforts of their teaching and support staffs to create a sense of continuity for the students and their families that they are privileged to serve. In addition, they’ve talked about their labor and community partners who have consistently stepped up to provide food and technical support for their most vulnerable students. None of them are complaining about the hand that they have been dealt.

We’ve also tried to let our listening audience know that not all California school children are educated in traditional public school systems. We’ve talked to two dynamic young leaders in the charter and private sectors, who are equally courageous in serving school children and their families.

Paul Escala, superintendent of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese runs the largest parochial school system in the entire country—a system that has 250 schools in the tri-country region of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara. Christina de Jesus, the president and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California, heads up one of the largest charter school networks in our state. Both are strong leaders facing major challenges on a daily basis.

We’ve also talked with Al Mijares, the elected superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education, which serves the 27 school districts of that important county. California has 58 county superintendents, and their responsibilities for oversight of the school districts in their areas have increased dramatically since Governor Brown ushered in major school finance and accountability changes favoring local control back in 2013. Al’s remarkable story is one of leading in a politically charged atmosphere like no other in the state. In the past year alone, the conservative Orange County board of education has sued him, the Governor and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for various perceived transgressions, including approving a budget and following county and state health mandates with regard to reopening schools during a pandemic.

What I see in all of the remarkable voices that we’ve captured on the podcast is how important leadership is in educating kids up and down our state, and how lucky and blessed we are with this current crop of dedicated men and women heading California’s schools.

Whenever you go on some social media platform, where criticism of those running schools is rampant and unfiltered, think about these leaders that I’ve described and how hard they’re working to get it right for your children and all children. Please step up and have the courage to thank them. I’m convinced that they’re representative of what we have statewide, and that is what makes California so special.

(Carl Cohn is professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University and the host of the Schools on the Frontlines podcast, which is available at edsource.org or wherever you get your podcasts. In addition to his positions in higher education and K-12, he has served on the California State Board of Education, and was the first executive director of a new state educational agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence.)

By Carl Cohn