Downey superintendent reflects one month into new school year

DOWNEY - The start of the 2013-14 DUSD school year on Sept. 4 was not accompanied by a blare of trumpets or the beating of drums, but it should have been. For it marked the conscious formal shift by the district to teaching and learning skills suited to the needs of the 21st century via its adoption of Common Core standards.What are these 21st century skills that are so much bandied about, and which everybody should take seriously? Dr. John Garcia, who began his tenure as the new DUSD superintendent last March 18, has by now visited every school in the district, met every principal, administrator, and staff, spoken to every class and therefore seen by every student on campus. In other words, his orientation period has ended. The time for pushing forward has begun. One of the very first things he focused on was promoting his brand of leadership to his leadership team (executive staff, administrators, principals, assistant principals) with his notions of effective leadership principles and practices. These principles will then permeate the teaching to students of desired 21st century skills known as "The Five C's," whose key elements are 1) critical thinking and problem-solving; 2) creativity and innovation; 3) communication; 4) collaboration; and 5) citizenship. He said these skill categories are the result of exhaustive independent research and intense thought by acknowledged experts in the field. This discussion with his leadership team of the subject of leadership and its integration with the similarly innovative Common Core standards took place last August 23 at the district. The importance of the session was underscored even by its signification, the DUSD Leadership Institute. Garcia elaborated on the ramifications of The Five C's. He said students, by learning these skills, will think "critically and creatively" when they develop skills to solve local and global problems, demonstrate originality and inventiveness, integrate knowledge and ideas to create and produce high-quality products, and set goals and work toward improvement and achievement for self and society. He said students will start to "collaborate" when they begin to interact in a respectful, productive manner, and adapt to various roles and responsibilities. Students will learn how to "communicate," he said, when they are enabled to identify key ideas and details when reading and listening to information, and articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using oral, written, and non-verbal communication skills in a variety of forms and contexts. Lastly, students will practice "citizenship" when they practice legal and ethical behavior, participate effectively with respect to roles and responsibilities, seek to understand diverse perspectives, and connect themselves and their learning to the real world. Garcia also mentioned the following additional (very familiar and highly desirable) "life and career" 21st century skills as essential to success: flexibility and adaptability; initiative and self-directional; social and cross-cultural skills; productivity and accountability; and leadership and responsibility. Digital literacy is seen as a vital skill as well; this means information literacy, media literacy, and ICT (information & communication technology) literacy. In this connection, he said, in conjunction with Common Core principles (e.g., expository vs. narrative approach, reading in depth vs. mere outline, etc.), The Five C's will enable the students to reach a level of readiness to embark either on a work or academic career. Garcia says, "We have a stable student population, up by 16 students this year in fact over last year, and our schools continue to do well academically," while the Character Counts overlay program is "contributing to a truly well-rounded students' experience." He says he feels very fortunate in finding himself surrounded by "so many good people"-the teachers, the staff, the administrators. "The teachers, they're all outstanding," he says. Moreover, echoing the observation expressed by members of the board at one time or another, Garcia says they are all hard workers. That's why, he says, because of their commitment to the transition to Common Core teaching techniques, he has taken it upon himself to try to elevate the whole leadership team from 'good' to 'great'. Thus, he says, the intensified training, the insistence on adopting new effective leadership skills especially among those who are in positions of institutional leadership. The key to this, Garcia says, is getting people on the same page: "Effective leadership is about getting every member of the team working together towards a common goal," he said. Otherwise, he says, he likes what he sees. For example, the understanding and cooperation shown by the teachers' and classified staff's associations (unions) is truly praiseworthy. The board of education he commends highly as well for being proactive and showing so much collective wisdom in its deliberations over the years, but especially in its handling of the budget situation over the last six years. This evenhandedness has led to the district's fiscal stability, he said. The executive team, he says, has been alert to note developments impacting district operations. Even now, Garcia says the senior staff is closely monitoring Governor and Assembly goings-on as they work on the apportionment of districts' funds. But for now, Garcia says he is simply overwhelmed by the good fortune that has befallen him, he being a product of Downey schools himself, and, coming here, in a good position to affect the lives of students in Downey as well as give back to the community he calls his own. He has in the meantime so far exhibited passionate and dynamic leadership himself, and all indications are, in his case, all systems are 'go.

********** Published: Oct. 3, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 25