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School board incumbents charting unfamiliar waters
For the first time in recent memory, all three incumbents seeking re-election to Downey school board face challengers.
WRITTEN BY :   Henry Veneracion, Staff Writer

DOWNEY – In terms of longevity, Area 7 DUSD board member Barbara Samperi ranks number three in years served on the board of education, having served these past 20 years, three times as president in that span. Only colleagues Donald LaPlante with 34 years of service and D. Mark Morris with 31, have logged more.
But, as everyone knows, in these cases number of years alone doesn’t hold water: it’s the meaningful experiences in those years, the insights gained, that count. As a candidate for re-election to the board this November, Samperi knows this only too well.
Samperi, who says she comes from a family of teachers/educators (a grandfather was on the school board in Nebraska, where her mother came from), was first elected to the board in 1993 – former 17-year superintendent Ed Sussman was two years away from retirement. She was thus a “lucky and privileged” participant in the selection of the next superintendent, Wendy Doty, who was to serve in that capacity for almost 10 years, as well as that of the current superintendent, John Garcia.
In a recent letter to The Patriot strongly defending the board and Samperi from the charge that “the board seems to be out of step with current student needs,” it was the timely remarks made by former school board member and longtime friend Cheryl Andresen, who apparently has kept abreast of board developments and well-informed of her friend’s activities, that resonated:
“The present board is a cohesive, dedicated group of individuals who spend numerous hours staying informed and focused on maintaining high test scores and graduation rates. Barbara is as informed a board member as one can be. Aside from official functions and meetings, Barbara attends numerous events and activities at each and every Downey school on a regular basis, makes yearly school visits, walking through classrooms, speaking with teachers and students, and regularly reads at several read-in’s each year. She has spent countless hours actively volunteering in classrooms, in PTA, city of Downey committees, and philanthropic organizations. Barbara has always been an advocate for children and children’s issues, including volunteering and working with the Exchange Club Family Support Center [from which she recently retired] for several years to help prevent child abuse. Barbara’s philosophy has always been to put the child or student first and foremost. Barbara is an outstanding trustee who promotes fair and equal treatment for all students and is a valued member of the board.”
Samperi otherwise offered this summary of her relevant background and work impacting the district:
Raised in Downey and schooled at Spencer Williams, West and Warren High School, she made it a point to get deeply involved in their education. From the time her first son started pre-school, she immersed herself in the learning environment. She became active in the Downey Council PTA, Alameda PTA, Ward PTA, South Middle School PTA, and Downey High School PTSA. She served in many positions, including elected positions of president and ways and means chairman.
Prior to her election to the school board, she was serving on many ad hoc committees including those addressing elementary and middle school report card revisions and boundary changes. She served on the city of Downey Community Services for 10 years as well, and on the City/CalTrans I-105 freeway committee for many years.
Meanwhile she worked as an instructional aide for DUSD where her many volunteer hours added to her educational skills set.
Thus, Samperi, who says she has been endorsed by fellow school board members, many community leaders, parents and teachers, takes justifiable pride in her service to DUSD and the city. She is especially proud of her participation in helping ensure the financial stability of the district during the hard economic times.
“This board kept cutbacks as far away from the classroom as possible and this happened with my participation,” she says.
Among her other insights: (a) in the matter of declining student enrollment, she says she believes the enrollment decline will stabilize with increasingly better economic prospects, helped by students transferring from other schools. She says she has noticed a cyclical trend in these things: that a steady enrollment increase materializes for 10 years, and a steady decline for the next 10, and so on; (b) she’s convinced more than ever that state education officials only “know how to talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk… they still don’t listen to what the teachers in the trenchers are saying. This is insane: they should roll up their sleeves and really concentrate on starting any educational reform with the basics…”
Of her challengers, Samperi says: “Nobody has seen any of my challengers attend even one board meeting or as much as be present at one of our Character Counts sessions. How can they presume to ‘bring new ideas to the board’ when they don’t even know what’s actually going on?”
In her campaign statement, Samperi emphasizes: 1) fiscal responsibility, always with the focus on classroom effectiveness – even in tight financial times, Downey school finances are stronger than most districts’; 2) safe schools-she has championed the enforcement of the rules against drugs and weapons, while fully supporting the Character Counts program in all schools; 3) high standards – she is dedicated to high achievement and expectations for students. (“More students are taking and passing advance placement tests. Most students are taking Career and Technology Education classes. Scores on state tests are the highest of any surrounding district”); 4) modernized schools-she has helped oversee the modernization of DUSD schools. Downey schools now have state-of-the-art science and technology facilities, including a new automotive/engineering facility scheduled to open in 2014.
Samperi says she is “proud of what our schools have accomplished,” adding that she knows Downey Unified cannot prosper without “high quality and safe schools.”
Now that the budget is stabilizing, two of her many goals are to bring back Carnival of Champions with community support, and middle school sports-campaign goals shared by fellow candidates and colleagues Nancy Swenson and Martha Sodetani.
“I am very proud of my accomplishments for our school district and our city. My passion for serving our community is as strong as ever,” she says. “If re-elected, I promise I will continue to put our children first, while keeping Downey School District a leader in educational standards.”
One of the busiest lady volunteers in town, one of the most visible, and one of the most honored, is Martha Sodetani, who, to nobody’s surprise, is seeking re-election on Nov. 5 as the Area 1 representative to the Downey Unified School District school board.
Whereas she was unchallenged the last time, she has company this time in her bid for a third term. Her challenger? A Downey resident by the name of Victor Malagon, an industrial maintenance electrician by trade.
Sodetani says it’s not in her nature to take anything – or, in this case, anyone – for granted.
“I’m preparing for a close race,” she says. “I’m going to fight very hard to retain my seat.”
Looking back to the beginning of her first term, Sodetani admits she saw things then in a “myopic way.” Nearly eight years experience on the board has taught her to see things through a larger lens, to perceive nuances from a much broader perspective. In short, she says she has learned how to connect the dots on school policy matters. Her completion of the Masters in Governance program in 2009 had a lot to do with this, she says.
On an even more fundamental level, her focus on the classroom, her commitment to continue improving the education of children, which have been profound concerns of hers from the beginning, continue to demand her attention. This passion, she says, is a leitmotif in her life: she has, in fact, six children, three of them adult, and three still at home.
As an active advocate for children for a number of years, she has served continuously as a puppeteer in the Assistance League’s Kids on the Block program, performing before youth audiences to promote healthy lifestyles by shoring up their resistance to gangs, drugs and bullies; she also serves on its Operation School Bell Committee, a program that provides clothing and shoes to needy students at DUSD. Sodetani says she feels there is nothing more rewarding than spending time with or in serving the needs if children. She has just finished serving as president of the Assistance League.
Other involvements include memberships in the Downey Coordinating Council, Child Youth & Family Collaborative, and Cerritos Community College as well as Long Beach City College Foster Care Advisory Boards.
Steeped in foster parenting, primary caregivers, self-esteem, and discipline issues (she has for years been a part-time trainer for Cerritos College and Long Beach City College in these areas), Sodetani says part of her calling over the years has been as a foster parent to medically fragile newborns, “touching their lives, one child at a time.” In addition to taking extensive foster care education classes particularly at Cerritos College and Long Beach City College, she has continued to attend several children and family services foster care conferences offered at various community colleges and has obtained the necessary certifications that allow her to work in the field (lately she has finished a course, she says, that helps track mental health problems).
Among her other community involvements through the years (she has lived in Downey for 30 years) has been as a longtime volunteer at the PTA HELPS food pantry. Her one-year term as president of the Assistance League over, she’s about to apply her energies next to running Gangs Out of Downey: her first meeting as its president was Tuesday.
If re-elected, Sodetani says in her campaign statement that the key areas she’ll focus on are: 1) like her board colleagues Barbara Samperi and Nancy Swenson who are also seeking re-election, bringing back competitive sports to middle schools and resuscitating the Carnival of Champions, a district-wide sports tournament for the top elementary school athletes. 2) giving stronger support to the institution of AVID at the four middle schools and the two high schools (AVID is known to have a high success rate among average students in middle school, preparing them to be university-ready by the end of high school); 3) supporting still further the training for teachers as the district implements the Common Core state standards initiative; and 4) continuing to support efforts to make Character Counts permeate the consciousness of students in all of the DUSD schools.
In addition, she says she will make sure the policing of schools continues.
It’s no wonder she’s won several awards. She’s been honored in the past as Stand for Children’s Outstanding Woman of the Year, as California State Woman of the Year, as DUSD Volunteer of the Year, as County of Los Angeles Volunteer of the Year, and, more recently; in 2011, the Delta Kappa Gamma International’s Outstanding Public Service Award, as well as the Golden Oak Award, the PTA’s highest award from the California State PTA, along with the DUSD PTA Honorary Service award at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She also received a Diakonia Award not too long ago.
“I wish to acknowledge my debt to Dr. Mary Stauffer. She’s been a friend, we’ve volunteered together, and she’s been a great influence on me,” Sodetani says. “I think it was her counsel that I keep my mind active, that I’ve gone back seriously to reading books.
“I’ve just finished reading ‘King, Queen, Knave’ by Vladimir Nabokov and am about to finish reading ‘An Invisible Thread,’ a true story written by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski, about an unlikely lifelong friendship between an 11-year old panhandler and a busy sales executive.”
“I think we did the right thing in picking John Garcia as DUSD superintendent,” she adds. “He is a good fit to the board going forward. Imagine what this means: he is actually the only ‘employee’ who takes directives from the board. It’s comforting to know that we have such a sharp, energetic and forward-looking individual at the helm of the district.”
Sodetani further says: “I feel so fortunate in being on the DUSD board. On some boards, you’ll see disarray, lack of focus, even instances of boorishness and rudeness among the members… And I like it that our students’ volunteer efforts impact not only the school but the community, such as blood drives, for instance.”
Asked about her main motivation, or what really drives her, Sodetani says, “I want to be a giver, not a taker. I like to be in a position where if someone needs food or clothing, either I can provide it directly or I can refer that person to the proper party or place that can assist him or her.
“When you give of your time or your energy, it makes you feel good. I want to be a giver, not a taker.”
Nancy Swenson, representing DUSD’s reconfigured District 5, says it’s a great honor to be serving on Downey’s school board and have the opportunity to give back to the “community that has given my family so much.”
Swenson, who has resided in Downey for 40 years and is one of 10 family members who have graduated from Downey Unified schools, has served on the local board of education for nearly eight years now (two terms), serving one year as board president, but her desire to help in the education of the youth has not diminished one whit: she’s again running for re-election this November.
Her run for a third term is being challenged by John Anagnostou, a product of both DHS and Long Beach City College.
Recently retired from an intensive 28-year career with Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems (SAS) division, where towards the end of her hi-tech/team leadership career she supervised a team responsible for ordering and tracking an annual multi-million dollar budget for equipment, software, and support agreements that impacted everybody in the division, Swenson says there’s still much work to be done in, and for, the district.
An adage she goes by: “If you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards.”
Here are excerpts from her latest campaign statement that covers her deep interests and intended courses of action: “The integrity of our solid core curriculum must be perpetuated. I will continue to support and reinforce English language development, special education, technology [of course], science and sports programs, to ensure that our students receive the educational tools and support so crucial to future success in college and/or the workplace.
“The safety and welfare of our students is a priority in all of my decisions. Gang affiliation and bullying in our schools must be eliminated. Schools must be safe, healthy, and effective learning environments for our children.
“Together, we can promote Downey’s vitality and growth by maintaining our enviable school system.”
Swenson, who obtained a B.S. in business administration degree (with honors) in computer information systems from Cal State Dominguez Hills in 1995 (accomplished by attending night classes even as she worked fulltime to support her family as a single parent), credits sound policy-making on the part of the board for avoiding drastic cuts during the economic crisis “unlike many school districts,” as well as the district’s achieving an “outstanding 91 percent graduation rate” in 2012-13.
“As a board member,” she adds, “I supported policies that contained costs, yet preserved full resources to every student’s classroom and retained our highly-valued educators.”
She had previously earned an A.A. degree from Cerritos College as a computer programming analyst.
According to Swenson, whose daughter is now an elementary school teacher at DUSD while her son works as a warehouse supervisor at a logistics company in Carson, the beginning of her first term on the school board was devoted to fact-finding and “understanding how everybody in the district worked together, how its culture was manifested
“Corporate culture at Raytheon was big, impersonal,” she says. “By contrast, the district afforded a family environment.”
The district budget had to be studied, how money was utilized, and for what purpose. The increased role of technology had to be directed into the right channels.
Then she discerned some of the district’s strengths. One is the students’ over-achieving attitude (as, referring to more recent achievements, witness two Warren High students winning in SkillsUSA robotics competitions last month in Kansas City, and two Warren High senior AVID students garnering Bill Gates scholarships in 2011, even as a third AVID recipient was awarded a cool $20,000 Dell Scholarship applied over six years, which will help her finish college and even an advanced degree, if she so chooses.
“It’s nice to hear of such achievements by our kids,” Swenson says. “This is good stuff. Don’t even mention Dr. Stauffer’s innumerable scholarships, sponsorships, and other sundry contributions over the years. She’s like a fairy godmother and Downey is so lucky to have her helping out.”
Another district strength is the hiring of really good people, especially in the selection of teachers.
“Initiative and creativity are meanwhile encouraged among our support staff and down the line, and consider even their wacky ideas sometimes,” Swenson went on. “The important thing is not to stifle people’s efforts to help find solutions by their exercising a little imagination. A good example of this was the creativity shown by a female cafeteria worker who came up with a solution to a seemingly innocuous situation-encouraging kids to pick up recommended food items on the food line, simply by changing their sequence.”
Then there’s the district’s “honest, sincere, and trusting” relationships with the two unions. The happy result? All concerned are working together to achieve mutual goals.
“I’ve seen so many achievements and effective programs in the district,” says Swenson. “There are too many of them I’ve lost count.”
With the improving economy, however slightly, Swenson says DUSD is looking at programs that can be restored-things like middle school sports. “We’ll probably need community partners to help us bring these back,” she says.
Efforts to build the infrastructure for the transition to Common Core standards are also underway, she said, involving students, teachers, parents, and members of the community, as she stressed, “Students will need to use computers to take the Common Core tests in the near future.”
“I’ve also begun discussing with our superintendent, Dr. John Garcia, how to get more parents involved in their children’s education,” she continued. “This is not going to be an easy matter, but nevertheless we’re looking into ways to help parents understand what it takes to teach their kids.”
“And, of course, we have to utilize technology to the utmost. The ideal situation is for every student to have a computer, an iPad or whatever, which will contribute to an ideal learning environment. These computers must then be calibrated to the learning plan of every grade level. I am enough of a realist, however, to accept the fact that this is not going to happen soon. But we must continue to work towards this goal. IT is very much hard at work on this.”
Swenson says her visits to school sites, which she could only perform annually heretofore because of her Raytheon job, have usually been the most fun for her: she’s able to interact with the students and staff, see first-hand how the curriculum is being taught, and learn more about changes that have been implemented at the schools.
With her retirement, she can now devote more time to these and her board duties, along with her other community commitments.

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Published: Sept. 5, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 21



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