Editor’s note: Don Shalvey will be writing periodically about education in Stockton for Stocktonia. He 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 56 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.
People sometimes ask me how I’ve remained optimistic about the educational possibilities in the Stockton area — even after decades of living and working in the region. “Nothing ever changes,” they say. “When are things finally going to get better and stay better?”
That perspective is understandable. These days, it’s easy to get lost in bad news about education in Stockton.
The alleged fraud and misappropriation of funds by the Stockton Unified School District (SUSD) made national headlines for all the wrong reasons, which raises big questions even as a newly elected board majority works to right some of these wrongs.
COVID-19 wiped out years of learning time, and just 27% of students are on “grade level” in reading, and only 22% of students in Stockton are doing math at their grade level.
In a recent poll of Stockton residents, 40 percent of voters believe education in Stockton is on the wrong track, compared with 34 percent who believe things are headed in the right direction. And more than two thirds of parents feel that schools need to change — including 40 percent who say they need a lot of change.
In this column, we will never shy away from hard truths and we will be honest about the challenges our schools face. The challenges are very real, and it is clear that residents are demanding real change.
With that said, we also will not dwell on bad news. Instead, I want to use this space to get beyond the headlines — and to focus on the people and programs that are working to create a new narrative about education in our region, one that will unlock the potential of our young people and chart a new course for the communities we love.
My optimism and faith in the future potential of our schools is based on decades of lived experience here in and around the San Joaquin Valley. In nearly 56 years as a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, and in philanthropy, I’ve seen, over and over again, the resiliency of our communities and the incredible potential of our youth.
In my view, there are three existential challenges facing Stockton schools today, and we’ll spend lots of time talking about them in this space:
- We need to support schools and educators in Stockton to be more responsive to student and family needs and to be more innovative than ever to get students back on track. We need to change the way we support students and try new models that not only help catch them up, but better prepare them for academic success in the modern world than we did before.
- Every student deserves the opportunity to do what they love and earn what they need after school. But the one-size-fits-all approach the learning that we continue to use across our high schools is leaving many of our students with the choice of taking on a mountain of debt by going on to four year college or trying to make a living on a high school diploma in a society that sees high school graduates as unskilled labor.
Ninety-two percent of residents in the recent Stockton poll would support moving to an early college high school model, which gives students the opportunity to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in a high-demand field during their years in high school. In our region fields like agriculture, health care, education, and others all need more skilled professionals. These early college high schools are beginning to take off to meet these needs — and we need to cultivate them.
- The need for teachers in the San Joaquin Valley isn’t new, but it’s been exacerbated by nationwide trends during COVID. San Joaquin County is the third largest in the Central Valley, with 6,000 teachers. Every year, there is 20% teacher turnover. That’s created a need for about 1,200 new teachers each year. Simply doing more of the same when it comes to teacher recruitment won’t solve this problem. We’re going to need to radically rethink teacher training to develop a homegrown pool of talented teachers.
In solving these challenges and the many others we face, I’m a firm believer that we are better when we work together. It will take all of us — elected officials, school board members, nonprofit leaders, teachers and parents — bringing our unique perspective and expertise to the work. But I’m confident that if we do that, and work together in good faith, we can make meaningful and lasting change.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll spotlight people and programs working to tackle our region’s challenges in innovative ways. I hope you enjoy reading their stories as much as I enjoy sharing them.