by Don Shalvey (This column was originally published at the news website Stocktonia)

In June, optimism emerged in Stockton as the Stockton Unified School Board (SUSD) announced the appointment of new superintendent Michelle Rodriguez. The community breathed a collective sigh of relief, not just because the search succeeded in identifying a skilled and experienced leader for SUSD, but also because of how it was accomplished – through an inclusive, transparent, and structured process.

Stockton’s recent history with superintendents is not a proud one. Since the resignation of superintendent John Deasy in 2020, the District has hired two separate interim superintendents, and one “permanent” superintendent who served just over one year of the identified contract. With the election of a new majority board this year came hope that the new board members would bring a new approach to the superintendent selection process – and that’s exactly what happened.

The SUSD board hired the nationally-respected search firm McPherson & Jacobson, LLC in March. Once hired, the Stockton Unified School District’s board majority embarked on a structured process in its search for a new Superintendent, including forming a Superintendent Search Subcommittee and establishing a diverse stakeholder interview panel to ensure the voices and insights of community members were heard.

As Bobby Bivens, President of the NAACP Stockton Branch shared, “This school board deserves great credit for selecting a firm, letting them identify an objective process, and sticking to that process. Too often, the only thing that makes headlines are dysfunction and disarray. This board set a timeline and process that they stuck to…”

That process led to the selection of Ms. Rodriguez – a proven district leader who was selected after an accelerated but inclusive process.

But as we welcome Ms. Rodriguez, we must also discuss the path forward for SUSD, and how the new superintendent can build on this positive momentum.

First, maintain transparency and inclusivity. The recent process was a triumph of community engagement, and there’s no reason why this level of involvement should end with the superintendent selection. Regularly updating the public on key issues and decisions will help maintain community trust. Opening avenues for continued input from a broad range of stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, non-profits, and community leaders—will ensure diverse perspectives continue to enrich decision-making at SUSD. The Superintendent’s recent round of “meet and greets” with community members was a good start to this.

Second, develop a long-term strategic plan. A detailed plan, with specific milestones and timelines, can serve as the North Star guiding SUSD’s work in the years to come. The district has suffered from instability in the past, and a robust strategic plan can ensure that progress continues even if the district faces leadership changes in the future. This plan should also be created with extensive community input, building on the foundation of the superintendent selection process.

Third, prioritize equity and student outcomes. SUSD currently lags behind state averages in reading and math proficiency. Furthermore, the district faces concerning equity gaps affecting African-American students and students with disabilities. Addressing these issues should be at the top of the new superintendent’s to-do list. It’s crucial that SUSD not only focuses on raising overall student achievement, but also on closing these equity gaps. The strategic plan should include explicit goals and strategies to address these areas.

Lastly – and this will come as no surprise to those who have read this column – the district must reimagine what education looks like in Stockton. That means investing in solutions like high dosage tutoring, that have proven to help students catch up on learning time they lost during the pandemic, and also making bold yet common-sense changes, like reorienting the district’s high schools to focus on career-connected learning.

Each of these recommendations is rooted in what we’ve heard from Stockton families and community members. Stockton is a diverse and vibrant community, and families and leaders have made it clear they want to be involved in shaping the future of education for their children. Ms. Rodriguez should embrace this as a strength and ensure that this level of community engagement becomes a norm, rather than an exception.

As former SUSD principal Gracie Madrid aptly stated, “Our district is better when we include community members in important processes like these.” It’s time to ensure that these words become a lived reality in SUSD, as it has the potential to transform not only our education system, but the lives of thousands of children and families.

Stockton’s new era of community-engaged leadership is here, and the path forward is clear. Ms. Rodriguez, we welcome you and look forward to seeing how you will leverage this community’s wisdom and dedication to bring about lasting change in our schools. We are ready to support you in this crucial mission, ensuring that every child in the SUSD has the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive.

Don Shalvey is the chief executive officer of San Joaquin A+, which consists of a group of educators, business leaders, active citizens and philanthropists who support education. Mr. Shalvey  has spent the past 55 years in public education, including serving as a deputy director for K-12 Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and he is the founder and former CEO of Aspire Public Schools. Mr. Shalvey’s opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of Stocktonia News Service.