The Change Agent

Jerry Almendarez

Superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District in Santa Ana, California

The Objective

Preparing to confront the challenges of the post-pandemic world.

Show Notes

Guest Jerry Almendarez, Superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, discusses the use of “strategic foresight” in order to plan for, innovate, and meet the challenges of our new educational environment, such as declining enrollment and social/emotional well being of students and staff.

Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint.  Dr. Balow has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.

Episode 25
Title: District Spotlight: Santa Ana Unified School District
Subtitle: Preparing to confront the challenges of the post-pandemic world.

VoiceOver: 

ChangeAgents in K-12 motivating transformation in education is presented by SchoolMint. Featuring in-depth conversations with top educational leaders, we are committed to the advancement of education through research exchange, idea sharing, and enlightening discussions. Are you prepared to be a change agent?

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Welcome everyone to the podcast ChangeAgents in K-12 . We have a great guest for the, this latest installment of ChangeAgents in K-12 . And I always enjoy having district leaders , uh , join us to share their amazing insights, because these are the folks who are in the front lines working every day. And today we have Jerry Almendarez who is the superintendent of Santa Ana unified school district in Santa Ana, California. As the new superintendent of the Santa Ana unified Jerry is responsible for leading the 10th largest district in the state with over 50,000 students, 61 schools and programs, approximately 5,000 employees and a budget approaching $700 million. Jerry Almendarez came to Santa Ana from Colton unified, where he was superintendents since 2010. He has been an education for 27 years as a classroom teacher and assistant principal and a principal also director of human resources and an assistant superintendent. So Jerry has done so many things in education. He has a master's degree in ed leadership from the university of Redlands and a bachelor's in business finance, which is a great thing for a superintendent from Cal state San Bernardino. He's also taught as an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific university in the university of Redlands, and he was named 2019 Ted ed, innovative educator, please welcome Jerry Almendarez to the podcast.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Chris, thank you very much for the invitation to be with you today. I really appreciate it. Look forward to our conversation.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Excellent. And I'm looking forward to ours because I've heard from a lot of people, the innovative things that , that you're doing in your district. But before we get into that, tell us a little bit about your school district.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah, like you mentioned we are the 10th largest district in the state of California, we are approximately , um , 88% free and reduced lunch. We have about 5,000 employees and our district runs geographically about 24 square miles. So we're, we're a large district, a very high dense population and right in the center, orange County. And , um, you know, one of the things that we're most proud of in Santa Ana is our graduation rate. We have a high graduation rate, a very active, involved , uh , community and a very robust , uh, career pathway program that we like our kids to go through so they can get experience whether it is to go onto four year university or directly to certified into the workforce. So we're very proud of those of those areas.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah, that's exciting. So in fact, you kind of address my next question is what makes an education in Santa Ana unified unique and special? And you , you mentioned the career pathway. Um, tell us a little bit about that.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Well , um, you know, one of the most recent pathways that we added in at century high school is the gaming pathway and just, just an amazing, I mean, you would think, you know, is gaming really a career and it has taken off. So, so , uh, so dramatically these past couple of years , um, with the drones and the, you know, the technology that has advanced , uh, we do have a state-of-the-art gaming , uh , facility at one of our high schools. And , uh , it is just an amazing facility. It feels like when you walk into this room and you're walking into some , something you'd see at Disneyland and one of the, one of their rides , um, but , uh , the kids are going through programming, they're writing , uh , games, they're competing and , uh, you know, just well-rounded , um, experience and opportunities for them in a state-of-the-art facility. So we're very excited about that. In addition to that, at one of our other high schools, we have , um, culinary pathways and construction pathways, and we literally have full-size industrial kitchens and as classroom settings for these kids. And they do a lot of , uh, servicing , uh, various events throughout the community that , uh, they're tapped into by our community leaders. And then , uh, the construction is working closely with our labor , uh, partners in developing the basic skills of our students. So again, they have the opportunity once they leave high school to go into a well-paying , uh , field in , in , uh , construction and or the food industry and, or go on to a four year university and continue that , uh , training in that experience.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

That's so exciting, Jerry, you know, I've talked to a lot of educational visionaries and to a person, they talk about the need to really engage kids in real world learning experiences. And it sounds like you are absolutely hitting it out of the park with that.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah, we we're , we're very excited. We do, we owe it all to our community partners. We have a, you know, a lot, a lot of investment in, in our schools and , um, a lot of industries, but we're just so thankful and so appreciative that , uh, you know, they're, they're providing these opportunities for our kids to thrive and , uh, it's exciting.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah. Fantastic. Tell us a little bit about as superintendent in a really complex district. Um, what are some of the major strategic goals that you're really excited about is you look, think ahead here in the next couple of years.

Jerry Almendarez: 

So they actually, because of COVID, those strategic goals have evolved and morphed into, into something a little bit different. Um, and you know, we're trying to navigate , uh , what that environment looks like. So the , the strategic we're trying to develop what we call strategic foresight in our district with our leadership team members, our labor groups is like, what , what, what does the future of education look like in Santa Ana as a result of the past year and our experiences with the distance learning and what opportunities are we going to provide? Not only our students that, that, that give them different experiences, but also for our staff and our administrators, to make sure that they understand the importance of the, you know, this new environment. And so , um, having those strategic foresight conversations , uh , uh, being around other , uh, organizations that are also attempting to navigate the future, what the future looks like is pretty exciting. We have a couple of models that we have in mind and really, you know, kind of consistent with the conversations that have been taking place across the country. We've also had opportunities to speak with other educators from other parts of the world. Uh , you know, as other parts start to open up our, our question is what are you guys doing and how are you doing it? Uh, and how are you navigating this, this transformation? So with all those conversations, we're looking at providing a number of different options for our kids , um, you know, and asking questions, like why does the traditional school, they have to be what it is, you know, what does it have to start at eight and end at two? Can it be flexible? Can we have on days and off days, can we have staggered starting and ending times? Um, we met with a group of students a couple of weeks ago and asking the students a question, like, what were your challenges during COVID and what you hope things to look like when you come back? And one of the students , uh , who is a senior at one of the high schools , uh, expressed a frustration that really made us think and reflect. And he said, you know, I have to take care of my younger siblings, and I should not have to make the choice whether to attend a class at nine o'clock or pick up my younger sibling from school. And, but right now the current system is making me choose, go to class or pick up my, my younger sibling. And so, you know, which propelled us to think, why are we making, why aren't we putting kids in those positions and why can't we be flexible to meet the students' needs as opposed to them meeting our needs. So, you know, just things like that, the, the, the , um , educational experience in the classroom, we're focusing on innovation and creating opportunities for kids to have a say into what their experience is going to be like, what that curriculum looks like. We're hoping to create opportunities for kids to actual solve real problems and not , uh, you know, open up the textbook and solve the problem in the textbook. We want education and those experiences to be meaningful for these kids. We want them to wake up every day excited about going to school, and we want them to wake up everyday excited about learning.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Oh, that's, that's , uh , so, so amazing. Um, Jerry, you know, the , the notion of traditional school days, and now with the technology we have, time is fungible and days are fungible and , and learning can occur anywhere any time . And , and so it sounds like your district has really thinking about post COVID is really thinking about changing your mindset around that . What's your sense to the people seem on board with that, or you do have some work to do yet?

Jerry Almendarez: 

No, no. I think, I think , um, you know, we're trying to take advantage of this crisis, and I think people, because it happened as quickly as it did, and it put everybody in a different frame of mind. I think everybody understands the importance of having to do something different. Now, we're all at different levels of comfort when we're asking people to change, some are more , um , acceptable of that than others. But I think the, the universal understanding in our community is that things have to change not just from a teacher's lens. You know, I think the kids were already in that space. They were already used to, you know, the, the devices and the, all of that new technology. Um, things happened so quickly. Our teachers were, were, were really forced to be in that environment and, and to their credit stepped up and did a lot of learning at the very beginning of this. But I think a year into it, we realized that it's not the best way to educate kids. You know, there needs to be that human interaction, that human contact. And so the question is, how do we, how do we balance the two, the technology part, the innovation part, and the interpersonal relationship part. And that's what we're hoping to do a really good job of as we come out of this, but everybody, I think, understands that change has to happen. We just don't know at what pace and at what level that happens. And for me, you know, I I'm, I'm, I'm, I like to think of Santa Ana unified as an incubator. You know, we're going to pilot things, we're going to provide safe space for people to experiment and explore and be innovative. And then when we identify those things that are working really, really good, then the question is how do we replicate that across the grade levels or across the district?

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah. Yeah. Fantastic. I love that term incubator and innovation. Um, and thanks for mentioning the whole relationship piece, you know, that's, I'm , I'm a former school psychologist, and I guess I still am once you are, you always are. But , um, you know, student engagement is really based on that relationship. And, and so I'm so happy to hear you focusing on that. And the other thing that, what you said really resonated with me was really around student agency is we want students to be involved in their learning and designing that and, and , um, real world problems that really excite kids , um, that, that just really, really resonated with me, Jerry. So , um, something came to mind as you were talking, you know, with , um, these changes that we've seen with COVID and , and online learning and distance learning, all those things. Um, there's been a lot in the press lately about kids just disappearing, you know, they're not showing up for their classes. Um, maybe they've accessed other educational , um , opportunities. Do you see this impacting your enrollment in any way? Um, either short-term or long-term.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think , um, you know, early on, as everybody was trying to , um, navigate this distance learning there, you know, when this happened, there was a sense that people were trying to teach online as if they were in a classroom. And the expectation , uh, became overwhelming not only for the students, but also for, for teachers. And , um, you know, the first impression is the most important. So like , as we're trying to navigate those expectations , um, you know, we lose teachers and we lose kids. And the hardest thing is that once the certain level of frustration kicks in, people just give up, you know, not that they're intentionally giving up, but mentally it's just the fatigue and the , the , the lack of hope that this will ever end. And so our concern is one of the things that we , um , really found ourselves doing six, seven months into this COVID was we really transitioned from an educational institution to becoming a social service agency. And we found a lot of our resources. A lot of our time was put into making sure that our students and our families were fed. We put in a lot of time making sure that we were doing wellness checks, not only with our students, but with our teachers, our staffs as well. And then we had to make sure that , uh, you know, we provided the safety opportunities that were safe enough for people to come in and pick up their devices or that the technology, and it was really hard. So, so we literally in collaboration with some of our community partners, transition from an educational institution to a social service agency. And, and we're proud of the service that we've been able to provide right now, right behind me. There's a vaccination center, you know , uh , and we're vaccinating our community. We're partnering up with our health, our health officials. And, you know, we've asked our site administrators to make contacts with those families because the families trust the principals, they trust the school sites more than they trust the County government or, or city government. So , um, we have reached out and, and working in collaboration with our city and our County officials. And we were , um, given the task of getting the word out there. And we tapped into our site administrators and our teachers to encourage the community members to get out there. And so far we've had an amazing turnout. Santa Ana is one of the hardest hit communities in Southern California. Uh, we've never came out of the tier one phase, which is the community spread phase. Our numbers were starting to go down. So things are looking really good, but we attribute that to the informational and educational campaign we did , uh , in collaboration with our community partners and the vaccinations that are taking place these past couple of weeks.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Sure. So as part of this, this whole app , uh , pandemic have, have you noticed changes in , in your enrollment?

Jerry Almendarez: 

You know, we have, we have, we've, we've lost, we've definitely lost a number of, you know, in , in part of it has to do with the athletics. You know, we have, yeah . You know, you, you, you wouldn't think that that has any impact, but because we're still in the community spread stage as a city, other areas are much lower and they're , they're able to open up. So a district two miles away from where I'm at right now actually has in-person instruction where we do not interesting. They are able to practice on the playing fields, which we can not , I mean, we can do some conditioning, but we cannot practice. So as a result of the proximity, the surrounding us, we've lost some of our students do those areas, so they can compete in sport in athletics and, or , um, attend some sort of hybrid , uh , in-person instruction.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Wow. That's so interesting. Quite an uneven playing field.

Jerry Almendarez: 

It becomes an equity issue. Which is why we're working even harder to try and look different when we come back, because we want people to say, wow, look at this change. This is, you know , this is amazing. We want it , we want to go back to Santa Ana Unified and we want to be a part of this new innovative space.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, really what you're talking about is, you know, students move, you know, for various reasons, but to provide a value proposition that Santa Ana unified as the place to be absolutely. Is that kind of the mindset that is the mindset. Yeah. So tell the listeners, you know, they may not fully appreciate if, if a student leaves or if a hundred students leave, that really impacts what you can do as a district from a financial standpoint, doesn't it?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah, it absolutely does. Yeah. You know, it , it, it, our, our , uh, revenue is generated through , um, our, our ADA, and that is the number of students that enroll in a district. And if the revenue is cut , uh, by tens of millions of dollars, because the loss or declining enrollment, then we have less financial resources to offset those expenses. And so, you know, we're, we're actually right now operating at a deficit because we have been declining enrollment for the past , uh, 10 years. And, you know, we're hoping, like I said before to take this experience in this crisis and use it as an opportunity to rethink how we operate as a district and to begin to thrive as we come out of this COVID crisis, we do not want to come out of it the same way we w we went in, we want to be different. We want to be innovative, and we want to provide opportunities for our students to compete globally.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah, absolutely. And I've done some research around parent choice and how , how they think about where they want to enroll their students. And one of the things I've learned in the research is that they look for innovation and special programs that , that, that are unique and meet their needs. So it sounds like you're, you're thinking along those lines as well.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Absolutely.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah. Is , um, part of that process to attract, do you, have you , um, what kinds of marketing things have you considered?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Well, we, you know, we have our social media campaigns that we push out, you know, we want to make sure that we try as many avenues venues as we possibly can. Um, but I think the , the, the, the way that we're really getting attention is by just reaching out to our stakeholders. So we have a number of student forums . We have a community forums where we have large numbers of community members who are leaders in the community, come together, have these same conversations. What do we, what are our challenges right now? What do we hope things to look like when, when they get better? Um, and then tapping into, you know, areas that we may or may not have thought about , uh , pre COVID, which is , um, tapping into our young professionals, the people that are coming , um, and, you know, really having the desire to make sure not only we do do we learn from our past and those that have been before us, but we also tap into the ones that are emerging and I'm having conversations with them about what does it really, what is an effective classroom model look like for you? And those, I call reverse mentors. You know, you tap into these people being , uh , over 27 years in education and, and a superintendent for over 10 years, my lens looks different than, you know, the third year teacher in a classroom. So I want to make sure they're occupied both spaces. And I learn from both groups of experienced professionals, as well as those up and coming, because I need to make sure that I meet the needs of those educators who are exciting, who are innovative, who do want to take risks and just motivate the heck out of kids. And so, you know, I not only do I have to listen to those that have traveled this path before me, but I also have to listen to those that are beginning this journey and make sure that I provide space , uh , environment and experiences for them to thrive.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

So kind of what I'm hearing Jerry, is that you really want to strategically engage all of your educators. So you can really leverage their unique innovations and by doing so, you're going to engage them to, to really provide them that collective self-defense

Jerry Almendarez: 

Absolutely. You know, we , we mentioned the word or use the word incubator, you know, th th there's going to be some special nuggets of , uh , greatness happening out there. And if we can create , um, uh, an environment that allows these unique individuals to thrive, then just think of the ripple effect that they can have on a grade level, on a school site and their colleagues in the 10th largest district in the state of California. And the more people that embrace that mindset, the more people are going to take risks, experiment, and then the more greatness is going to come out of that. So we're , we're hoping to be that hotbed, that incubator of innovative thinking, innovative teaching, and , um, you know, cause it's only going to help our kids, but it'll also help our educators too . And our administrators, you know, we want, we don't just want teachers to be innovative. We want administrators to be innovative as well. And so add to create those environments where people feel comfortable to take risks that aren't going to be necessarily held punitive, or it seemed to be punitive, but, you know , learn from those mistakes and then make the adjustments.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

So w what I'm hearing is really this model that , that you've set up where you're going to innovate, which is gonna engage teachers, engage students. Um, you're going to keep students because they're not going to want to leave. You're going to maybe attract new students, which increases financial stability. And in the end, the kids are going to , to grow. Yes. Is that , is that kind of how you're thinking?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah, that is exactly. That is exactly it. And I can, you know, this is going to sound weird for a superintendent say, but I could really care less about the money part. I mean, yes, it helps us keep our doors open and helps us to be innovative, but it's really about thriving for children. And I'm hoping that one day we're a district that has a waiting list to get in that we're the model of orange County, state of California, the country, where people are coming to us and say, Oh my God, what did Santa Ana unified school district do during this time? How did they transition to be such an innovative and robust district? And we have people from all over the world all over the globe coming in and visiting our schools because they want to see the amazing things that are happening and , and kids are thriving.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah, absolutely. And like, good superintendent. You don't want to think about money. Uh , definitely it's about the kids, but it's the dollars that allows you to create these innovative programs. And so the public really needs to understand that , um, there's a direct relationship there.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Absolutely. That is absolutely true. Yes. Yeah .

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Well, Hey, I wanted to ask you , um, as a psychologist, this has been on my mind, a great deal that many experts are telling us that students are facing all these increased social and emotional challenges. And , um, tell us a little bit about how your district is going to try to meet that potentially tremendous need.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah, it is. It is very hard. I mean, there's not a week that doesn't go by that we are in space where there are parents in tears or kids in tears about the overwhelming stress that they feel for a variety of different reasons. Um, we we've, again, partnered with our community partners to provide , um, a number of different services. I had mentioned earlier that we've felt we've transitioned from an educational institution to a social service agency and we really have, so we have a number of different hotlines, suicide hotlines , uh, you know, private hotlines that kids can reach out to. There's a number of reasons we have , um, wellness , uh, um, opportunities for kids, not only for kids, but then for their families as well. Okay. Um, and so we've had, you know, situations where we've had students and parents, you know , um , having a tough weeks. And, and so, you know, w through zoom to technology, we're able to do a , um, daily and weekly. Check-ins when we're where we need to. So we can physically see the kids. Um, our site administrators , uh , I was at a school site the other day , uh , visiting a school and parents were coming in socially, you know , uh , distance and stuff like that, but they were picking up the resources. Some , some of it was laundry detergent, you know, because a lot of our families have been out of employment. Um, and so they're , they're the basic necessities of just living they're struggling with. So , so we have a variety of that. Plus we work with our community partners, our faith base , uh , partners. And if, if we're not providing a service or we can't provide a service, then we know who can, and who does. And there's a large number of amazing community partners out here. So if there is a need out there, it will be met. You know, the sad thing is, is that we're seeing the numbers of , um, kids falling off increasing the numbers of , uh, abuse rates through our health department and, you know , going up and stuff like that. So we're , um, you know, we're trying to get back into a school as quickly as we possibly can. A few before the holidays, we were able to, through the County guidelines, we're able to open up learning labs. And so those learning labs for those students that were having the most difficult time in their houses. So, so we've got about 38 of those learning labs up at different sites, small number of kids together. And , uh, you know, just to being on the campuses with those kids, seeing their faces, you can tell like there's some hope and , um , you know, in the , in the parents are very appreciative. So, you know, it's just a variety of different things. And, you know, when something new pops up, a new issue pops up, there's a solution for it . We may not have the resources or support, but we know where to get it. And I think out of all of this , uh , trauma that has happened to everybody, the good thing is it's brought a lot of people, a lot of agencies together working towards the same goal.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Fantastic. And as you described all of that, Jerry , the complexities of running a modern school district , um, it , it's, it's just amazing really , um, you , you, all the different hats you have to wear and the different things that you need to consider. And now we have to think about, you know, all these special concerns kids have with their social, emotional health. Um, related to that, I was thinking some other studies I've been reading concerns that because students haven't had structure for over a year now, and, and in some cases it'll be pushing a year and a half, you know, managing behavior in the classroom and following routines that it's really gonna be hard. And , um, have you, what kinds of things have you done to , to kind of preplan in that area to make sure your teachers have the resources and wherewithal to , to get kids back on track?

Jerry Almendarez: 

So a couple of things , uh , one of the things that jumps out as I hear you ask that question is the conversations that we've had with students so far, and the students were really , um, really articulate when they made the point that you got to give us grace when we come back. Interesting. Yeah, not say , I mean, they, you know, I mean, it was a surprise. I mean, I don't know why it was a surprise, but it was it just to hear it from their mouths . We kinda thought we kind of thought, but to actually hear the kids say, Hey, you need to give us grace as we come back because, you know, things, aren't the way they used to be. And , and we've been through a lot. And so, you know, it's going to take a couple of weeks and , and kind of the patterns that have risen from the conversation with the kids is these interpersonal relationships that they want first, they want to be able to connect with an adult that, that adult cares for them. They want to know they want the adult to be vulnerable, that some of the kids were saying the best teachers I have are the ones that have cried that I've cried together with, you know? And , um, and not because I like anybody crying, but because they appear to be human to me, you know , they're human too. So , um, so we've had some conversations about that. We have our principal, our team meeting, we've taken the data from that and shared it with our , with our leadership team members. The ironic thing is, is that, and , and , you know, the, the adults feel the same way. Yeah. Yeah. They're not saying it like the kids are, you know, because they have to be strong they're professionals and , but they feel the same way. Give us grace. And so, and I'll be honest with you. So do superintendents. People, people look to us for all the answers and the solutions and the, you know, the thick skin and the armor. And there are many, many times when I'm driving home or I ride the train into work sometimes, and I'm at a loss and I pick up the phone and I phone a friend and to , to walk me off the ledge, you know? And so we're all in this together. I think we just have to be mindful that we know nobody's experienced what we're going through. And we have to be, not only do we have to understand and give kids grades , but we have to give teachers grace and administrators , grace, and , and we have to be mindful of for ourselves and the superintendents. We have to find that balance because if we're not healthy, then we can't take care of other people. You know, we, we will snap and say the wrong thing and get people upset and that's not our intentions. So it's just a real balancing act, but it just means so much more because the more people talk about it, the more real it feels. And the more we want more and more, we want to help. And so giving grace, you know , uh, establishing relationships with kids , um, and letting them know that we care.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah, absolutely. And I wrote down grace because I love that term and the students will need that. Definitely. And , and as a psychologist, I can tell you one of the most important factors in, in student behavior and engagement is that relationship piece. And so that has to be job one. When the kids come back is you don't have to jump into the books instantly , um, to, to get those relationships.

Jerry Almendarez: 

I'll tell you one of the things that I, I have done, you know, you'd mentioned the , uh , innovative TED ED educator experience that I was able to have. And that really was a , it started out with a book club that I used to do early in my superintendency, just to one, because I needed to , what was a superintendent gives you to reinforce the importance of literacy? So I started a book club, but it turned out to be way more than a book club. And it , it gave me opportunities to be around kids, to be around adults and having very vulnerable conversations under the cover of a book. So here I am a superintendent, the book that we're reading right now with teachers is , uh , be the one for kids. And the book that we're reading for administrators is called hacking leadership. But both of these books really have the same , um, uh , research them that it's all about relationships. And so what better way for me to be in a zoom with 200 teachers talking about what can we do for kids? How can we be better for kids? Now, if I were to, if , if there were no books and I was a superintendent says, okay, I want anybody interested in talking about how we can improve kids sign up here. You know, I may not got 200 guests to sign up because, you know, for whatever reasons, but you put a label of a book club under that people , uh , are interested in hearing more about the title, whether it's hacking leadership, be the one for kids. And then they, it creates a safe space to have vulnerable conversations. And, you know, so what I try to do is model what those expectations are. A superintendent. I modeled that vulnerability to my administrators. I modeled that vulnerability to my teachers. And I tell the teachers, you know, I substitute kids for principals or I substitute kids for teachers. Yeah . And this is what I try to do because the research and the concepts are exactly the same. We're all human beings. And with the leadership one too , you know, I tell the principals , substitute kids, students for teachers, you know, and you, you write your teachers a note that says, thank you for what you did. You pick up the phone and you call them, then you say, Hey, great job. You know, just those little things go a long way. And that's my attempt to model what those expectations are in that grace. So when students come back into the classroom, we don't just walk by a student and say, hi, we stop. We look at the student in the eye, we talk to them for a little while to show them that we're, we care and that we're present for them and, and continue that cycle, you know, as , as much as we possibly can.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Fantastic advice for, for all the educators out there. Jerry, that is just wonderful. Um, couple more questions then we'll wrap up. Um, you know, you talked about reverse mentors and I was thinking about mentors and with teachers coming back, and we know they're going to have all these, these , uh , unique challenges. Um, the notion of coaching has come up in, in my research recently about, you know, teachers need coaches just like tiger woods. The greatest golfer in the world needs a coach. And , um, do you guys do coaching in your district and what does it look like?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah, we do. We do. Um, you know, and it, it depends. Okay . So we have coaches for our administrators that look different than our coaches for our classroom teachers, or clear labor labor agreements that we, you know, we have to follow and make sure that we have guidelines on. Yeah. But I couldn't agree more that, you know, a good coach is very important to the success of a classroom teacher. And for a long time, coaches were , uh , looked upon in a different light, meaning that if I was a classroom teacher and I had a coach that was punitive, Oh , and that's not the intent of what it is now, granted over time because of his lack of empathy or this lack of, you know, this , the accountability model that is put down on us creates that perception. And we have to do a better job as a public school system to say, that's not the intent. The intent is exactly as you described, you know, to get better, not to be punitive, but to get better. I have a coach as a superintendent. I've had a coach ever since I've been a superintendent. And I tell you, it's the best thing that ever happened to me and I , um, what ha you know, make sure that my new administrators have these coaches as well, because it can be very lonely and very challenging, but yeah.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Yeah. Especially for a superintendent, it's a very lonely position. And , and having that mentor confidant , uh, is, is critical as I've talked to so many superintendents through this podcast. Yeah , absolutely. Um, well, Hey one , um, just final question. As we wrap up here, we're getting to the end of our time, what lessons have you learned as a superintendent and what little tidbits of advice might you give to an aspiring superintendent?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Well, I think the lesson that I've learned this past year , um, with COVID is that, you know, the, the only thing consistent is change. Things are going to be changing on a daily basis. And I can't take it personal. I have to make sure that I do my best to, to operate on the information that I have at that time. And then as things change, maybe the next day, I have to make those pivots and make those adjustments. And I think you kind of knew that before COVID, you know, that's really the way it was, but it really resonated because things were changing so rapidly and so quickly , and there was so much unknown out there. What was the second part of your question,

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Any, any tidbits that you would like to share for an aspiring superintendent?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Yeah. You know, I mean, it's definitely not an easy job, but , um, that you're not alone. There are people that we , we don't do this because we expect the job to be easy. We, we do it because we want to have an impact on , um, on kids and adults and society. And so , um, at times the job can feel very lonely, but, you know, I would just recommend that all aspiring superintendents and even sitting in superintendents, reach out, build your network of colleagues. It doesn't have to be another superintendent. It can be people of a variety of different titles. I tap into all the time. Um, the more I'm talking, the less I'm , um, you know, building it up inside of me and I'm able to sometimes validate my feelings. And sometimes I'm able to reflect and say, you know what? That's not the way I, you know, I should be doing things. I , I do need to pivot my , one of my coaches said that I need to be like water and continue maneuvering. I find the cracks To make that breakthrough. So that , that's how I operate is, you know, just don't , don't take things personal, reach out to colleagues. Um , everybody is now trying to navigate this job in this space together. And , um , we're not alone. So, you know, I'd be happy to be in touch with anybody that needs an ear or shoulder.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

That is a great offer. And I would recommend anyone listening to, to give you a call or an email, Jerry, well, we've come to the end of our time. And, but you have to play our game, this or that before we leave, I'm going to say two things and you tell me which one you prefer and you can provide a rationale if you wish. Okay. First one dog or cat?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Dog.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Dog. All right . How do you like your eggs scrambled or an omelet?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Omelet.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Omelet. Okay. Facebook or Twitter?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Twitter.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Twitter. Um, okay. If you're taking a walk or a jog, whatever, do you listen to music or a podcast?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Ooh, both.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Oh, you can't. You got to pick one, Jerry .

Jerry Almendarez: 

I will say music.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Music. Okay. A cake or pie.

Jerry Almendarez: 

A pie.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

All right . Do you like a big party or a small gathering?

Jerry Almendarez: 

A small gathering.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Small gathering. That's been almost universal with , with superintendents. That's been interesting. Baseball or football?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Oh gosh. Football.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Football. Okay. Um, do you prefer jogging or hiking?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Jogging.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Jogging. Okay. Do would you rather receive an email or a letter,?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Email.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Email. Car or truck?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Car.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

You're a car guy. Okay. Um, let's see here. Pancake or waffle?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Pancake.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

All right . iphone or Android?

Jerry Almendarez: 

iPhone.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

You like to save money or spend money?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Spend money.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Very good. TV or a book?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Oh, book.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Book. Okay. Amusement park for the day or a day at the beach?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Day at the beach.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Day at the beach. All right . And the last question, Jerry toilet paper over or under?

Jerry Almendarez: 

Oh gosh, over.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Over. Okay. Fantastic. Well, I want to thank Jerry Almendarez the superintendent of Santa Ana unified school district for joining us for this podcast. It's , it's been just a great visit and thank you, Jerry.

Jerry Almendarez: 

Thank you for the invitation. I had a great time talking to you and thank you for all you do. Uh , getting our voice out there we really appreciate it.

Dr. Chris Balow: 

Well, thanks again, Jerry, take care.

VoiceOver: 

Thank you for listening to the Change Agents in K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Find us on all major podcast platforms and make sure to subscribe, so you never miss a show. Have a story to share? We want to hear it. Record a three to five minute audio pitch detailing your experience in working to become a change agent and why educators need to hear from you. Send your audio files to podcast@schoolmint.com . Join the conversation and help us advance towards the bright years ahead. See you next time.

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Season 1

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Listen Now Becoming Transformational in Education 5 Becoming Transformational in Education How do we define transformation in education and what challenges lay ahead? Guest Gary Soto provides an extensive dialogue on what schools need to focus... Listen Now School Spotlight: Hilliard City Schools 4 School Spotlight: Hilliard City Schools In this school spotlight, guest Dr. John Marschhausen (Superintendent of Hilliard City Schools) shares district information and answers questions related to the pandemic closures. Dr.... Listen Now Post-Pandemic Preparation 3 Post-Pandemic Preparation How has the pandemic affected students and how should schools address these needs when preparing to reopen? Dr. Howie Knoff provides valuable answers to these... Listen Now PBIS & SEL: Conversation and Challenges 2 PBIS & SEL: Conversation and Challenges An in-depth discussion on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) with guest Dr. Don Kincaid. 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