The Learning Leader Lab

Jerry Almendarez, Superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District

May 30, 2023 David Culberhouse Season 1 Episode 3
The Learning Leader Lab
Jerry Almendarez, Superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District
Show Notes Transcript

We have a very special guests with us today, Jerry Almendarez, who is currently the superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, which is one of the top 10 largest school districts in California. Superintendent Almendarez  has been a classroom teacher an assistant principal, a principal, director and assistant superintendent of human resources, and previously along with that the superintendent of Colton Joint Unified School District before taking over the superintendency at Santa Ana Unified School District. He is an incredibly amazing leader. But even more importantly, he is an avid reader, and he's a learner, and for me personally he's a mentor and a friend. 

Music by QubeSounds from Pixabay - Rock Beat Trailer


 

David  00:11

Hello and welcome to the learning leader lab, brought to you by San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools and I'm your host, David Culberhouse, if you are looking for conversations around innovative change leadership for our complex and exponentially changing times in education, then you have definitely come to the right place. We want to welcome you to this episode as we talk with leaders inside and outside of our county, and the important work that they're doing. And so with that, let's get started. We have a very special guests with us today, Jerry Almendarez, who is currently the superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, which is one of the top 10 largest school districts in California. Superintendent Almendarez  has been a classroom teacher and assistant principal, a principal, director and assistant superintendent of human resources. And previously along with that the superintendent of Colton Joint Unified School District, before taking over the superintendency at Santa Ana Unified School District. He is an incredibly amazing leader. But even more importantly, he is an avid reader. And he's a learner, he and for me personally, he's a mentor and a friend. And I appreciate how he's supported my leadership journey through the years too. So I really appreciate him joining us. And we're really looking forward to the conference conversation, especially at this time of the year when I know he's incredibly busy. So welcome, Jerry, is there anything you'd like to add to that? Because I know, there's a lot of other things you do beyond your school district. I know you've done TEDx internationally and anything else you want to add?

 

Jerry  01:56

No, no, no, I just want to say thank you for the kind words, but you're too kind, because I think, you know, I appreciate your research. And I appreciate you as being thought partners. And I would consider you to be what I would call a reverse mentor with those individuals that, you know, are maybe younger than me, but also identifying the current trends that are emerging, not only across the nation, but globally. So as much as you appreciate me and my work in my mentorship, the feeling is mutual.

 

David  02:30

Well, thank you. That's very kind. And it's true, because and just so our listeners know, we kind of kept the conversation a little looser today, because we want a chance to kind of explore some subjects because I know. And I meant it when when I said you're an avid reader and learner, which is so important for today's leader. So I'm going to take you through a few questions. And we're going to explore a little bit this afternoon. So let's get started. So what are a couple things that you're really finding exciting right now. And it can be inside or outside of education? That really have you thinking deeply about the present and our future? And with that, are there any topics that you find yourself exploring more and more recently?

 

Jerry  03:17

Yeah, so I think COVID had interesting impact on not only educators but, you know, society in general. And as we navigate our way out of it, and as we tried to return to some sense of normalcy, I think the common theme that I see in all of the circles that I'm a part of is that we have to do things differently. What we've been doing in the past hasn't obviously been working, at least in public education. And so we have to identify different ways of thinking different ways of doing things, and really solve today's problems with solutions that may not have currently exist. Because what we've been trying to do in the past things like when we when we address issues like low academic performance, or funding, or legislative issues, you know, we try and remedy solutions that, you know, more funding more personnel more after school programs, better curriculum, and that just hasn't played out? Well, in the past 50 years, you know, public education has been stagnant. So some of the things that I find exciting, and some of the emerging trends that I see out there are things like wrapping my head around the framework for strategic foresight, and really getting a understanding of how can I think differently to solve today's problems with with newer solutions? And then the other area that I find exciting is artificial intelligence, the emergence of AI and my curiosity as to what impact that is going to have on the classroom, what impact is going to have in districts and really what impact does it have when we look at Tim I was leaders.

 

David  05:01

And and I really appreciate that. And even going back to something that you said at the start of this is that it's, it's really interesting because when, when COVID kind of hit, you know, for for those of us who are in the social media spaces around education, all we heard about was that this was really going to be a tipping point moment, and everything was going to change. And then COVID just kind of kept going, and it kept going and kept going. And, and then, you know, to the point where we were finally able to come back, but, you know, the research of like, organizational theorists like Bill Starbuck always said that the longer the arc of a crisis, the the more that people want to get back to what life was prior. And I think in some ways, we tried to come back and do that, because, you know, that tipping point moment had become a really long, difficult journey for for a lot of us. Whether you were on the student and educational partner side, or if you're an educator or an administrator, but, um, as we came back in, you know, as you spoke to that, is that we really came back different. I mean, with our just our outlook, I don't know if you've seen some of that, just, you know, perspectives, and just the way we kind of came back to the the in person learning.

 

Jerry  06:43

Yeah, yeah, no, I think I think it was a slow transition, I think the trauma, the initial trauma of having to be out, we were closed for two years here in Santa Ana, and the trauma of being closed for two years, and really developed those socio emotional skills of those human interaction skills as we returned back to the classroom, not only for the students, but for the teachers was very challenging. And I think the first year that we returned, we were we were concerned about everything but but academics, we were still concerned about our public health or public safety with health wise, we were concerned about the mental wellness of students and staff, and, and parents. And so, you know, we were navigating those challenges. And over time, as things started to get more back to normal, whatever not whatever that means today is, I think, once we realize that the dust had settled with this pandemic, people gravitated back to their comfort zone, which was the way we were doing things before COVID hit. And and I think what my challenge is, and I say that because in, in the circles that I belong to the agendas, post COVID other topics may be a little bit different. The the issues were basically the same, like I had mentioned earlier, the lack of funding, the lack of staff, the lack of academic support for our school sites. And after school programs, and we found ourselves repetitively keeping the cycle going and trying to solve the those same issues, although they were new in the socio emotional with, with the, with the pandemic and associated, the mental health part. The strategies that we were using were the same. And I was just getting frustrated and frustrated, because I felt like we had this, this crisis happened to us globally. And yet, our way of thinking was the same. And so there's an author who wrote a book called Imaginable and there's a quote in there from, from a researcher called Christine Caine. And she says, sometimes when you're in dark, and a dark place you think you've been buried when you've actually been planted. And I keep circling back to that comment, and I want to believe that I've been planted. And in what we're trying to do is what not just so that we as a district and as a community and society, is we need to water that so we can grow and grow bigger and better than we were before. And so that's where we loop in this different way of thinking, at least for education, and that's wrapping our heads around this framework for strategic foresight. And then as we see these these signals happening globally and across the world, like AI and AR How can we learn about these new technologies? And how can we use them to help improve and benefit the classroom instruction and leadership of school districts in this new environment?

 

David  09:49

And and I love that that reframing quote, because it just gives a completely different perspective on how we look at our current circumstances in our current context.. And I think that's really important. And I want to build on the foresight, because I know that's something that you've been looking at deeply and and I think it's going to be really important for educational leaders moving forward. Because when we start to figure out how we become less reactive and more proactive is going to require that horizon scanning is going to require us to start to think about and that author that you were talking about, talks a lot about scenarios of, you know, when we spend time in scenarios and thinking about different kinds of futures instead of just one feature that could happen to us, that we actually we react better when we deal with circumstances that might be beyond what we considered possibly happening, because we've already considered a variety of scenarios that could happen. And so I know you've been doing a little bit of, and I think you recently even brought together a meeting more foresight got to be on the topic. D. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

 

Jerry  11:09

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you know, and I think you're the very well rounded in the term called VUCA. In that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And when you think about what we went through, and you think of those, those four areas, taking the volatile environment that we had to navigate, I think the challenge is transitioning, that that volatility into vision, the uncertainty of the pandemic, and the uncertainty of the funding and the staffing and really, as a public school system, taking that  uncertainty and doing our best to bring understanding to that. And then the complexity of, of the issues that we're having to deal with. As a public school system. We're not we're not just educating students, now we're providing social services. And so taking that complexity and bringing clarity to what public education means now, post COVID. And then this this ambiguity in that with our funding and staffing, and, and building capacity, and just reframing the mindset and be more add, bringing the agility to the way we think and the way we do things from moving forward to navigate this. And I think taking that VUCA environment and wrapping that in the framework for Strategic Foresight allows us to get to that vision that understanding that clarity and that agility. And I'll give you an example. I forget what book it's in. But the former head of creativity for innovation at Disney, Duncan Wardle talks about gives examples of like Disney. So Disney's business model doesn't call customers customers they call customers guests. And employees aren't employees, they're cast members. And that different way of thinking and it's simple changing of terminology. Thinking of customers, as guests and employees as cast members creates a different mindset for that organization internal. And they're one of the more successful revenue generating companies and that exists today. And then he talks about the like opening up a business and starting something as simple as a carwash. Well, when you think about opening up a carwash, you think about the basic needs of that car wash, water, soap, towels when window cleaner and stuff like that, but when you when you change the title of that business model from the carwash to car spa, what are some things you think of under that title? And that's maybe scent the masseuse flavored water and, and just simple rephrasing and rethinking of how we operate creates a whole different dynamic to something that's very similar, and it's a different way of approaching a carwash. He also talks about that, you know, the jobs of tomorrow are the ones that will not be programmable into AI. And those are things like traits, human traits that we're born with, like curiosity, creativity, imagination, and intuition. And so if we, if we see all of these signs based on this research that's popping up out there, based on you know, the successes and the the signals that are happening globally, then it's our responsibility to to capture these thoughts and to think differently create models and how we're going to provide opportunities for our teachers and for our future leaders to really begin to embrace this mindset. And what does it mean to go ahead? I'm sorry, no, go ahead. I was just gonna say, what does it mean to be to have a student who is curious, creative has an imagination and intuition. What does that look like as you're going through the system? As a student? What does it look like for a teacher who's trying to teach these things, or for a district leader, who's trying to provide opportunities and spaces for these areas to thrive within their organization?

 

David  15:38

I truly appreciate that reframing. And, and as you were speaking, and I might have shared this with you before, and I don't know if I've shared this even on on this podcast before, there's a futurist who works with security in the military, Dr. Amy zolman. And she does a lot of work with like the top end generals in the military. And she had had asked them previously before, what they were built for, and they said, We were built for war. And she said, So but what did she and then she asked him, What do you spend the majority of your time doing right now? And when they did some research on that, they said, Really, we spend the majority of our time around disaster relief. And so her question to them was, so what you were built for, and what you do now are different? Do your people understand that the work that they do is changed. And so as you were discussing that, I was thinking that, you know, sometimes we think that our job is just to relay content to students, but we live in an age where it's just a myriad of other skills and supports, and, you know, social emotional learning, and, and, and supporting trauma and all those different things, you know, providing food, and there's so much more. And so I love all that you brought up there. Let me get into another question with you. Did you want to add on to that? No, no, no. Okay, good. So as a leader, I truly appreciate that you have never lost zeal for learning. So as you talk about those skills that our students need, the one that always comes up is curiosity. And and I know that you have that, and you model that. And it's so important as a leader, because what leaders model that allows their people, to them feel safe to them model those same kind of skills and attitudes within the organization. So with that said, you know, and I know you're always growing and evolving. Is there anything on your reading list right now? Besides, I know, you already brought up one book, anything that's really piqued your interest recently? Yes,

 

Jerry  17:58

yes, I'm glad you. So there's a book that I'm currently reading right now called Thrive. And that one talks about the purpose of school in a changing world. And it was it was introduced to me by one of my reverse mentors, who is a global influencer. And really, the book really talks about this, reimagining public education across the globe, and how, how, as a society, we are more interdependent upon each other than ever before in the history of mankind, how when one part of the world is impacted, it impacts all of us, either through supply change to global warming, through through migration. You know, and so it's just a real eye opener, talks about a couple of new emerging trends in public education that you can see, you know, you talked to earlier about identifying the signals out there in society. And you can see some of the signs that they're talking about in this book emerging in different parts of the world with our youth, and their lack of hope and how they're beginning to apprise in other countries and in China and Iran and win this war started out in Russia and Ukraine, and more recently, in the US and Tennessee, and with all of the these legislative actions happening, that people are feeling are unfair, the youth is really rising to the top and, and they're craving for to be hopeful about their future. And so with this book, it talks about those different scenarios, and some of the challenges that society we're facing, with educating our students for a future society to be healthy and productive and well rounded. And so that's an amazing read and I'd recommend it to anybody.

 

David  18:45

thank you. And let me build on that a little bit. And it kind of actually goes back to something that you discussed before, if you, if you if you want to bounce around this idea a little bit is that is becoming more and more important that, like you said, we're in a VUCA world. So it's really hard to see light at the end of the tunnel of what that's going to be. But we also have to be, I think, much more proficient at helping students anticipate a future that they're going to see themselves in. And I think one of the things we're kind of, like all kind of wrestling with right now is artificial intelligence. I think, you know, we know about automation, and we know that that really is affecting jobs. But AI, even though we've been talking about it, since 2016, has kind of hit the scene in a much more dynamic manner. You know, it, and I think you see that being wrestled with, across not only our own country, but other countries around education and, and business and other arenas. Is there anything you want to kind of speak on around that, because I know, it's something that you've looked at very early on?

 

Jerry  21:23

Sure. Sure. You know, at first I was just blown away by its capability is everybody else and the very quickly to the that, I think, you know that this is an opportunity. If we learn and embrace it early, then we can learn how to use it for good, and how to improve our, our craft in our in our, in our academic performance within the classroom and our leadership ability within school sites and districts, if we learn it at the early stages, and what it could be used for good. And so that's kind of the philosophy that I've taken as a superintendent, I'm taking the embrace it not ban it stance, and I'm lucky and fortunate enough to have a board of education, that that kind of sees it as the same opportunity is that we need to learn it and we need to grow, grow with it. And we need to learn how to use it for good and to improve opportunities across the district, I also see it as an equity issue is that those that have access to this type of technology, and learn from it will be able to, you know, thrive, learn faster, in you know, interpret, you know, content or curriculum in different ways. And so this is a game changer for communities that are low, or high socio economic communities, that levels the playing field, and potentially could be generational changing in their personal lives. If we learn how to use it in a right way that gives them opportunities that possibly don't even currently exist right now, with future jobs, skill sets and stuff like that. So for me, and for my district, and for a lot of my staff, it's let's learn it early, let's learn how to use it for good and Let's expose our our staff and our community to it for to give the opportunity to improve their skill set, but also thrive in whatever the future evolution of this has for for us.

 

David  23:30

And as I'm listening to you discuss it that the one thing that is coming back to me as the way that I mean, even your approach to AI is that that reframing just like the the quote that you brought out of imaginable, because you're seeing it more, I think sometimes we hear the word artificial intelligence, and it sounds scary, but you're coming at more from it. And it's generative AI and we know that there can be some, you know, not so good sides to it, but you're approaching it from an augmentation perspective. And seeing it as a tool, which, in the end, if we're going to use it as a tool, we're gonna have to think about so if we're using it to augment it takes us from that idea of that it's cheating to how do we utilize it to be more productive to enhance the skills that we already have to be more creative and how we ask questions or, or push responses out of it. That's the way it kind of came across to me as you were speaking, because a lot of what we've talked about today is really, you know, that reframing mindset that you're putting forward, so really appreciate that. I don't know if you want to add on to that. 

 

Jerry  24:54

Well, no, I mean, you know, I mean, it is scary. Honestly, it is scary. And there is a lot of unknown about it. But, you know, if you think about the two possibilities that could happen, if we learn it at an early stage, and we have good intentions about its use, then we can identify the good that can come out of it. If we ignore it, and we and other people, other countries, learn it, and use it, maybe for not so good intentions or for self serving intentions, then we become victims of it. And this is a moment in, in society, humanity, where we have the opportunity to make a conscious decision about which trajectory we're going to take. And for me, personally, I'm going to be as proactive as I possibly can, in the position that I serve with the community that I serve, to expose them to the good and the bad, so we can learn from it, and use it for the greater good of society, you know, my hope is that one of our kindergarteners is going to be you know, eventually find the cure to some disease that, you know, is out there that we can't find a cure for, or invent a product that is, you know, life changing when it comes to, you know, human nature. And so, it's just like, we have to learn how to use it early, so we can find the good in it.

 

David  26:25

And that perspective falls along with the foresight that you've been talking about, you know, and, and being able to understand that, you know, as leaders, we can't know everything, but we have to start to look around the corner. Otherwise, we become reactive. And in today's world, you know, today's VUCA world, with that volatility change is accelerating. It's not, it's not slowing down, it's speeding up, and it can move by us and make us irrelevant, really quick. So I really appreciate that perspective.

 

Jerry  27:03

And that's my fear, my fear is, like the adults are taking their time with this. And for me, there's a sense of urgency, right, because of the rapid pace that this is evolving, is we don't have time to be patient with this. We have to accelerate the the desire and the urgency of wrapping our heads around this earliest at this early stage. Because there are other countries and there are other organizations doing this. And if we're not careful, if we take our time, if we just be patient for things to happen, then it's going to be too late. I want to be on the on the I want to be at the table, when an if regulations kick in, I want to be able to say yes or no, don't you dare do that. And here's the reason why. Or I want to be an organization that uses it and then begins to thrive, that people organizations across the world come and see and say, How did you guys do this? What made you take these steps? You know, that's, that's really my mindset. And, and if leaders aren't thinking this way, if they're not open to learning about this, then what's going to happen is they're going to lead the way they've always lead, they're gonna get, they're gonna identify the solutions, they've always identified, and they're gonna get the results they've always got, where others who do embrace this mindset, who do embrace this different way of thinking, are going to begin to separate and thrive. And then you're going to have your haves and have nots. And for me, as a, as a superintendent, I'm trying to remain relevant to my community to society, so that I can have that ripple effect with other leaders across the globe. And say, look, here, it can be done. Here's here's how we learned it. Here's some ways that you can do it. But let's, let's have a conversation and be thought partners together. Because maybe you have your experiences are different, and I can learn from you. So it's that constant cycle of improvement science.

 

David  29:12

And and it's also that strategic foresight that you talked about, because now you're you're preparing the organization and the adults to be ahead of it, and to be thinking about scenarios. So where is this going? What's next? So then when things come, we're not reacting, we're actually proactively preparing our students. And I don't know if you want to add to this. I also know that you're a huge proponent of student agency. Yeah, yeah. I don't know if you want to say anything about that. But yeah.

 

Jerry  29:42

Yeah, yeah we can we can talk a little bit about that. But I'm going to close out with, you know, during COVID people, the most common question I was asked is like, what, what are we going to do? How are we going to come out of this? What's going to be different? And I struggle with with those responses because the lens that I was looking at was my lens as an educator 25 years prior to COVID. Well, for my 25 years in public education, not much has changed, right? We said we were changing, we talked about being future ready. But when COVID hit the reality, also hit saying that we weren't as future ready as we thought we were going to be. And I think the author Peter Drucker coined it perfectly. He said, If you want to predict the future, you have to create it. And post COVID, that's the charge is, we're not waiting around, we're creating, we're going to create the future. And we don't necessarily know what that looks like. But we know we have to do something different, which leads into the student voice question. And one of the things that we did during COVID, was pull about at community leaders together and had a conversation with the help of the National Center for economics and education, which is a global research organization, to look at high performing educational organizations across the globe. Because we wanted to identify what characteristics those countries and those organizations had, and then kind of relate them to the practices here in Santa Ana. And what we discovered is there were some select similarities, but there were also a lot of differences. And so out of the seven month conversation during COVID, via zoom, we developed what was called the graduate profile, which is our community's expectations of students when they leave Santa Ana Unified School District. And after that, creation of that, and the board took formal action to adopt it, we began to roll it out. But the way we rolled it out was the way we've always rolled things up. We brought it to our principals, we had a conversation, we asked them, let's calibrate what these eight characters is gonna look like. And then let's create a plan for next year. So in one of these meetings, one of my principals was listening to the dialogue that was taking place, which was pretty similar to the dialogue that's been taking place for the past 25 years. And she raised her hand and she said, Mr. Almendarez  can I stop you for a second? I said, Yes, she goes, you're asking us to calibrate what these characteristics are. She was I want you to look around the room. So we look around the room. And there's a bunch of administrators, a bunch of assistant principals, district leaders, and she goes, we're creating a system for kids, without the kids even been here at the table. And you could hear a pin drop, when she made that comment. And it was at that point that we thought, You know what, we better pause because you're right, we're gonna pause what we're doing. And this wasn't at the meeting. But after reflecting on that, that day, Executive Cabinet came back, and we decided to pause on moving forward with those conversations with the adults. And we went out and did a 600 student listening tour, where our research department randomly selected students that reflected the communities in the schools that they were in. So we spent the next six weeks visiting 12 different schools, and having conversations around the graduate profile. And we had a really interesting moment when we discovered at the end of this process, that the kids were completely on a different had a different set of expectations than the adults had. And so we pause there, and we transitioned into a different way of handling student, the student needs, which were social emotional needs, one student said, Mr. Almendarez, you can create the best lesson in the world. But I could care less if I know that you don't care about me. And the students at post COVID really wanted that adult human interaction. They wanted to know that the adults really cared. And I think we talked about strategic foresight, and we talked about doing things different. That's how we began this transition out of COVID at Santa Ana Unified. We started to have conversations with teachers and ask them, Why do you? Why do they kill kids feel like you don't care? Well, the teachers were frustrated because they didn't feel like the principals were supporting it. You know, there's no subs, I had to combine classes. There was enough time for collaboration. All of these demands were put on the teachers. So we went to the principal's and we said, How come you guys aren't supporting the teachers? And you know what the principal said? You guys putting too much demands on us from the district office. Mr. Superintendent, you're asking us to do this, this, this, this this, which really hit us really hard, you know, as an executive cabinet. And they were right. And we felt like if we were going to make this transition, if we were going to create an environment where people felt valued, and felt vulnerable enough to try new things, and we as an executive cabinet as a governance team with the board, we had to change the way we operated. And so we started to we brought in a group called Harbinger, and helped us start to work on the adult mindset. And we spent all of last year doing that with our principals, our leadership team, our parents and our teachers.

 

David  35:12

And I, you know, and the one thing that I so truly appreciate there is that level of awareness, and that emotional intelligence to be open to, you know, what are our blind spots? And where do we need to really fill some gaps and have deeper reflective understandings of what we do as leaders. And and I also want to kind of chime in a bit. I know when Santa Ana unified hosted future ready and you had future ready there. You had student voice there, and the actual student was discussing, you know, how this has really affected them and change not only their life, but their future? And I believe if I'm correct, you know, going back, probably at least 10 years, when you were a superintendent and Colton, you were also doing community cabinets. And you were bringing students in to have voice there to. 

 

Jerry  36:12

Correct yeah, yeah. Well, and you know, the value behind that is like, so part of the expectation for public education is to survey our stakeholders, right? Well, you know, we did that for 10 years in Colton, and we did it like all like all kinds of other districts. But what we learned very quickly is that the responses you get on a survey are different than actually the responses you get in person. And a good example is we were interviewing kindergarten for not interviewing, but having listening sessions with kindergarten say, Well, we did different here in Santa that we did in Colton is we hired external facilitators. And the reason why we hired external facilitators is because I wanted myself and I wanted Executive Cabinet to really be able to sit down with the kids and just listen, not contribute not not, you know, give input, but we just wanted to sit there and listen. And so by by hiring these external facilitators, we were able to work with them, but they facilitated the conversation, which allowed us just to sit at the tables and listen to the kids. And I'll never forget, there were three kids one elementary one kindergartener at an elementary school, who these kids did not know each other because they were randomly selected. But this little kindergartener, when we asked what do you wish your teacher knew about you? Little kindergartner raised his hand, we gave him the microphone, he stood up and said, I don't learn well, sitting down for six hours. And the the adults in the room just like started getting teary eyed. Because a little kindergartner was brave enough to say, you know, I get tired, you know, sitting down for six hours and you talking to me, we had a middle middle school, young lady raised her hand, she got the mic, and she goes, I just wish the teacher would pronounce my name correctly. And then a high school sophomore said, I didn't want to go to my algebra class. Because before I even sit down in my chair, the teacher gives me a hard time, because of the way I look. Now, if we were to give a survey to those three kids, you would not get the anxiety, the tone or the tension in the Faces by that written survey, or by a computer generated survey. But when you're sitting down listening to these kids, you're seeing their body language, you're seeing them tear up or their voice start to crack. That's the game changer. And so when we talk about student voice in Santa Ana, we're talking about authentic engagement. When we talk about teacher apparent voice, we're talking about authentically engaging them. That is a survey but it's also interaction. And so we have community townhall meetings, we have student listening sessions, we have parent teacher listening sessions, we have administrator listening sessions. And, you know, it's not we're not perfect, we have a lot of work to do. But it really does work on improving those the human interaction and human relation part. Because we know we have a good pulse and what the issues are in not only with our adults, but with our students.

 

David  39:22

And going along with that, even going back in the conversation earlier, when you were talking about one of those consultants that you you have come in who brings that lens in support of just being a global game changer. That person is well versed also in design thinking. And so as you're we're discussing that that level of empathy that you're bringing into the process of really just spending time really an empathy interviews, I know you'd brought up continuous improvement, that empathy interview process where I don't Think you can get any deeper data, or better data to initiate the need for change than then that level of interaction. So now Yeah.

 

Jerry  40:14

And I tell you, it takes a lot of work, it's, there's no doubt it's, there's a lot of work to it, and I can see why organizations or people resort to electronic or paper surveys, right. But but the results are different. And, and if we're really going to impact change, if we're really going to have an influence on it, then we have to do the hard work, we have to do the hard work, we have to we were responsible to our to the new to the younger generation was responsible for our community, to be the game changers in this to provide opportunities that create a level playing field for our communities. And it's not done just through a survey, it can be that can be a part of it. But there's also got to be that authentic interaction as well.

 

David  41:00

And, and in today's world, you know, it's it's also supporting each other, because sometimes those conversations can have an emotional toll on everyone. And so, you know, building up to be able to not only bring out that really deep data that is really about understanding not numbers, but really people. It it, it requires a heavy lift. So no.

 

Jerry  41:34

And and David they do they adults, you know, we have to have the emotional intelligence to deal with some things that we may not like to hear. Yeah. And it's not because we're not trying to we're not doing a good job. It's because this is the way people really feel. And this is this is what, you know, challenges me when I think about the future leaders. And what are we doing to support them? Because if we're not providing opportunities for them to embrace this different way of thinking, we're providing them the skill set that allows them to navigate these these challenging this VUCA time, then they are going to create get into positions and then very quickly, they're going to turn over. And that doesn't help anybody.

 

David  42:17

Yeah. And and I think that kind of leads into the next question. Because I mean, you look across the country, and the superintendency is really difficult position right now, in keeping people in place. But let me share this question with you. So the life of the superintendent really is a 24/7 7 day a week proposition. So and I know that you also not only have that you have quite a travel to do every day. And I know that that can take a toll too. But so how do you manage your ability to support the organization and build capacity along with your need to continuously learn and build new capacities? And then to balance that and and really, something that we haven't talked about? Over the years until more recently is have wellness around that too?

 

Jerry  43:14

Yeah, well, I think it is a challenge. And you know, I'm just lucky to have a wife that understands the work that I do. She's an educator as well, there's, none of this would be possible without her support. And so, you know, one, I've been blessed to find the right, my, my partner in that respect to the second response to that is, unfortunately, I've had, I've made some mistakes when it comes to the physical wellness, over time, I've just been blessed to be able to recover from those and learn from them. So you know, I don't share this publicly very often. But I've been in the hospital three times as, as a superintendent, and I've been a superintendent for 13 years. And fortunately, all three times that I was in the hospital it was it was stress related. And I remember the last time the doctor coming up to me saying, you know, I got good news, and I got bad news. I said, What's, what's the good news? He says, The good news is your, your tests and your X rays came back negative. So I'm thinking, Okay, what's the bad news. And he goes, the bad news is if you don't change something, you may not walk out of here next time. And that really hit that was I think I was in my early 40s, when that happened. And so you know, we have to be mindful that we're not able to take care of others if we can't take care of ourselves. And it's not just the physical taking care of ourselves, but the mental taking care of ourselves. And what I've done over time, since then, is, you know, I talked about reverse mentors. I have a lot of mentors that have been superintendents are in leadership positions that are retired now. And I have a combination of both. I have I have those that I can call and say man, I don't know how you did this. Tell me how you navigated this and then I have my reverse mentors. Well, I call and say, Hey, tell me what I need to be prepared for. So I can begin planning. And it's, it's having thought partners and I and David, I consider you to be one of those mentors. And you know, we have many conversations and you keep me up to speed on a lot of the research. And it's because of individuals like you that take keep me on the forefront of these emergent trends that allow me to bring a certain level of excitement, one to my job that keeps me coming into work, and excited about it, but to the confidence knowing that I am actually having an impact on a system that is getting ready for future. And, and so it's just, you know, eat but everybody's different. And we have to navigate that are different ways. But having multiple avenues to to address your physical as well as your mental health are vitally important to any leader in today's environment.

 

David  45:56

Oh, yeah. And just add to that, it, it's a lot easier to learn about it. But it's incredibly inspirational to watch someone who's actually making it happen in an organization. So watch a new model that and the the approach that you take to supporting your organization, and the willingness to put yourself out there and sometimes be vulnerable as a learner, that I've seen allows other people, I think, to step up and and feel comfortable to learn, because in a lot of organizations, we don't see learning as it should be, is it we we sometimes create knowing organizations, that attitude when we really should be creating learning organization? So yeah, so I truly appreciate this. And so now, I know, I don't want to take too much of your time, because I know you're really busy. And, and love having this conversation. I could just keep going. But I have one last question for you. And we'll kind of wrap it up for today. And I really appreciate you being on and sharing just a lot of incredible insights. But so after everything we talked about, what do you think is maybe next for the future of learning and for education?

 

Jerry  47:22

Yeah, so, you know, a couple of different things that I've been thinking about in the future. So some of the questions that we keep having conversations around are, you know, with the emergence of AI, and an AR, is like, Why? Why does school have to begin at 8 and end at 230? Why do kids and staff have to come in five days a week? Can Can there be an am session in a pm session? Can kids attend school, at a brick and mortar facility? Three days out of the week, and then remotely? Two days out of the week? Can we use augmented reality? And and have kids maybe virtually be present in a classroom that serves the same purpose of what current what's currently happening in our brick and mortar classrooms? You know, just different playing different scenarios like that. Why can't we attract students from other countries to be a part of our system? And get the ADA year credit for for those to increase enrollment? Can we have classrooms that really are stationed in industry buildings, you know, and private industry? As pathways? You know, how can we work differently with universities, it's just those are the type of conversations and the future that we're kind of having conversations around through the umbrella of the framework for strategic foresight. There are a lot of challenges, legislative challenges out there. But what we're trying to do is have the conversations so our legislators can start hearing the questions that we have.

 

David  49:10

And going back to the beginning of today's conversation, we talked about the word relevance. And the one thing that really strikes me about everything you said there is that what I've seen from leaders who are are moving into really relevant spaces with organizations aren't leading with answers. They're leading with questions. And so I really appreciate that. Because if we're not asking the questions, and we're only providing answers, we're not only not building capacity, we're probably not moving into spaces that we need to be moving into with our thinking. So I truly love that. So do you have any last words?

 

Jerry  49:54

Yeah, yeah. And it doesn't just have to be with an education field. So we've reached out to industry outside of education to be thought partners with us. And I don't know why we didn't do this sooner, you know. And so tapping into private industry and having them come in and say, hey, you know, we're thinking about the classroom or the future, can you? Can you help us, like interpret that, you know, the architect firms? And, you know, a lot of responses we get is like, Well, nobody's ever asked us that. Well, let's have a conversation, what does it look like? You know, and that will help us backwards map. That's like identifying one of the scenarios. So, so my encouragement and the reason of what I want to close is, we don't always have to rely on our colleagues or educational partners, to have this discussion. We need a variety of partners to come together not all from education to really be thought partners, and have this conversation about what is the future of education look like?

 

David  50:55

And just to build on that, I won't say who it was. But I remember you telling me there was a very futuristic company that you reached out to, and they, they weren't just like, willing to take your call. They were like, excited. Yeah, like, they just like, Wow, can we get with you? And let's do it. Let's look at how we can do some things together. And so that's, I think the most important thing is kind of like being on Twitter, and just saying, hey, you know, would you come speak at my school? And the person goes, Oh, yeah, you know, sometimes you just have to reach out and ask people. And so I love that. I really want to thank you for your time, because I know you're incredibly busy. But I also know that you can bring a lot to building insights and and helping people look at leadership during the time that can be really difficult. And so I thank you, thank you for sharing your wisdom today. And it's just been great to have you on our podcast. So thank you very much. And thank you for all you do.

 

Jerry  52:02

You got it. David, thank you for the invitation. And I do anything for you, my friend, you know that so I enjoyed today's conversation as well. 

 

David  52:09

I truly appreciate you. Thank you. On behalf of San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools and myself, we want to thank you again for tuning in for this episode of the Learning Leader Lab. And we look forward to you joining us again for future episodes as we engage leaders inside and outside of our county to explore leadership that is having real impact for the future.

 

JerryA_mixdown

Fri, May 26, 2023 12:51PM • 52:45

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

talked, students, conversation, superintendent, leaders, organization, learn, years, work, future, thinking, principals, public education, teachers, santa ana, support, create, call, people, adults

SPEAKERS

Jerry, David

 

David  00:11

Hello and welcome to the learning leader lab, brought to you by San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools and I'm your host, David Culberhouse, if you are looking for conversations around innovative change leadership for our complex and exponentially changing times in education, then you have definitely come to the right place. We want to welcome you to this episode as we talk with leaders inside and outside of our county, and the important work that they're doing. And so with that, let's get started. We have a very special guests with us today, Jerry Almendarez, who is currently the superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, which is one of the top 10 largest school districts in California. Superintendent Almendarez  has been a classroom teacher and assistant principal, a principal, director and assistant superintendent of human resources. And previously along with that the superintendent of Colton Joint Unified School District, before taking over the superintendency at Santa Ana Unified School District. He is an incredibly amazing leader. But even more importantly, he is an avid reader. And he's a learner, he and for me personally, he's a mentor and a friend. And I appreciate how he's supported my leadership journey through the years too. So I really appreciate him joining us. And we're really looking forward to the conference conversation, especially at this time of the year when I know he's incredibly busy. So welcome, Jerry, is there anything you'd like to add to that? Because I know, there's a lot of other things you do beyond your school district. I know you've done TEDx internationally and anything else you want to add?

 

Jerry  01:56

No, no, no, I just want to say thank you for the kind words, but you're too kind, because I think, you know, I appreciate your research. And I appreciate you as being thought partners. And I would consider you to be what I would call a reverse mentor with those individuals that, you know, are maybe younger than me, but also identifying the current trends that are emerging, not only across the nation, but globally. So as much as you appreciate me and my work in my mentorship, the feeling is mutual.

 

David  02:30

Well, thank you. That's very kind. And it's true, because and just so our listeners know, we kind of kept the conversation a little looser today, because we want a chance to kind of explore some subjects because I know. And I meant it when when I said you're an avid reader and learner, which is so important for today's leader. So I'm going to take you through a few questions. And we're going to explore a little bit this afternoon. So let's get started. So what are a couple things that you're really finding exciting right now. And it can be inside or outside of education? That really have you thinking deeply about the present and our future? And with that, are there any topics that you find yourself exploring more and more recently?

 

Jerry  03:17

Yeah, so I think COVID had interesting impact on not only educators but, you know, society in general. And as we navigate our way out of it, and as we tried to return to some sense of normalcy, I think the common theme that I see in all of the circles that I'm a part of is that we have to do things differently. What we've been doing in the past hasn't obviously been working, at least in public education. And so we have to identify different ways of thinking different ways of doing things, and really solve today's problems with solutions that may not have currently exist. Because what we've been trying to do in the past things like when we when we address issues like low academic performance, or funding, or legislative issues, you know, we try and remedy solutions that, you know, more funding more personnel more after school programs, better curriculum, and that just hasn't played out? Well, in the past 50 years, you know, public education has been stagnant. So some of the things that I find exciting, and some of the emerging trends that I see out there are things like wrapping my head around the framework for strategic foresight, and really getting a understanding of how can I think differently to solve today's problems with with newer solutions? And then the other area that I find exciting is artificial intelligence, the emergence of AI and my curiosity as to what impact that is going to have on the classroom, what impact is going to have in districts and really what impact does it have when we look at Tim I was leaders.

 

David  05:01

And and I really appreciate that. And even going back to something that you said at the start of this is that it's, it's really interesting because when, when COVID kind of hit, you know, for for those of us who are in the social media spaces around education, all we heard about was that this was really going to be a tipping point moment, and everything was going to change. And then COVID just kind of kept going, and it kept going and kept going. And, and then, you know, to the point where we were finally able to come back, but, you know, the research of like, organizational theorists like Bill Starbuck always said that the longer the arc of a crisis, the the more that people want to get back to what life was prior. And I think in some ways, we tried to come back and do that, because, you know, that tipping point moment had become a really long, difficult journey for for a lot of us. Whether you were on the student and educational partner side, or if you're an educator or an administrator, but, um, as we came back in, you know, as you spoke to that, is that we really came back different. I mean, with our just our outlook, I don't know if you've seen some of that, just, you know, perspectives, and just the way we kind of came back to the the in person learning.

 

Jerry  06:43

Yeah, yeah, no, I think I think it was a slow transition, I think the trauma, the initial trauma of having to be out, we were closed for two years here in Santa Ana, and the trauma of being closed for two years, and really developed those socio emotional skills of those human interaction skills as we returned back to the classroom, not only for the students, but for the teachers was very challenging. And I think the first year that we returned, we were we were concerned about everything but but academics, we were still concerned about our public health or public safety with health wise, we were concerned about the mental wellness of students and staff, and, and parents. And so, you know, we were navigating those challenges. And over time, as things started to get more back to normal, whatever not whatever that means today is, I think, once we realize that the dust had settled with this pandemic, people gravitated back to their comfort zone, which was the way we were doing things before COVID hit. And and I think what my challenge is, and I say that because in, in the circles that I belong to the agendas, post COVID other topics may be a little bit different. The the issues were basically the same, like I had mentioned earlier, the lack of funding, the lack of staff, the lack of academic support for our school sites. And after school programs, and we found ourselves repetitively keeping the cycle going and trying to solve the those same issues, although they were new in the socio emotional with, with the, with the pandemic and associated, the mental health part. The strategies that we were using were the same. And I was just getting frustrated and frustrated, because I felt like we had this, this crisis happened to us globally. And yet, our way of thinking was the same. And so there's an author who wrote a book called Imaginable and there's a quote in there from, from a researcher called Christine Caine. And she says, sometimes when you're in dark, and a dark place you think you've been buried when you've actually been planted. And I keep circling back to that comment, and I want to believe that I've been planted. And in what we're trying to do is what not just so that we as a district and as a community and society, is we need to water that so we can grow and grow bigger and better than we were before. And so that's where we loop in this different way of thinking, at least for education, and that's wrapping our heads around this framework for strategic foresight. And then as we see these these signals happening globally and across the world, like AI and AR How can we learn about these new technologies? And how can we use them to help improve and benefit the classroom instruction and leadership of school districts in this new environment?

 

David  09:49

And and I love that that reframing quote, because it just gives a completely different perspective on how we look at our current circumstances in our current context.. And I think that's really important. And I want to build on the foresight, because I know that's something that you've been looking at deeply and and I think it's going to be really important for educational leaders moving forward. Because when we start to figure out how we become less reactive and more proactive is going to require that horizon scanning is going to require us to start to think about and that author that you were talking about, talks a lot about scenarios of, you know, when we spend time in scenarios and thinking about different kinds of futures instead of just one feature that could happen to us, that we actually we react better when we deal with circumstances that might be beyond what we considered possibly happening, because we've already considered a variety of scenarios that could happen. And so I know you've been doing a little bit of, and I think you recently even brought together a meeting more foresight got to be on the topic. D. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

 

Jerry  11:09

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you know, and I think you're the very well rounded in the term called VUCA. In that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And when you think about what we went through, and you think of those, those four areas, taking the volatile environment that we had to navigate, I think the challenge is transitioning, that that volatility into vision, the uncertainty of the pandemic, and the uncertainty of the funding and the staffing and really, as a public school system, taking that  uncertainty and doing our best to bring understanding to that. And then the complexity of, of the issues that we're having to deal with. As a public school system. We're not we're not just educating students, now we're providing social services. And so taking that complexity and bringing clarity to what public education means now, post COVID. And then this this ambiguity in that with our funding and staffing, and, and building capacity, and just reframing the mindset and be more add, bringing the agility to the way we think and the way we do things from moving forward to navigate this. And I think taking that VUCA environment and wrapping that in the framework for Strategic Foresight allows us to get to that vision that understanding that clarity and that agility. And I'll give you an example. I forget what book it's in. But the former head of creativity for innovation at Disney, Duncan Wardle talks about gives examples of like Disney. So Disney's business model doesn't call customers customers they call customers guests. And employees aren't employees, they're cast members. And that different way of thinking and it's simple changing of terminology. Thinking of customers, as guests and employees as cast members creates a different mindset for that organization internal. And they're one of the more successful revenue generating companies and that exists today. And then he talks about the like opening up a business and starting something as simple as a carwash. Well, when you think about opening up a carwash, you think about the basic needs of that car wash, water, soap, towels when window cleaner and stuff like that, but when you when you change the title of that business model from the carwash to car spa, what are some things you think of under that title? And that's maybe scent the masseuse flavored water and, and just simple rephrasing and rethinking of how we operate creates a whole different dynamic to something that's very similar, and it's a different way of approaching a carwash. He also talks about that, you know, the jobs of tomorrow are the ones that will not be programmable into AI. And those are things like traits, human traits that we're born with, like curiosity, creativity, imagination, and intuition. And so if we, if we see all of these signs based on this research that's popping up out there, based on you know, the successes and the the signals that are happening globally, then it's our responsibility to to capture these thoughts and to think differently create models and how we're going to provide opportunities for our teachers and for our future leaders to really begin to embrace this mindset. And what does it mean to go ahead? I'm sorry, no, go ahead. I was just gonna say, what does it mean to be to have a student who is curious, creative has an imagination and intuition. What does that look like as you're going through the system? As a student? What does it look like for a teacher who's trying to teach these things, or for a district leader, who's trying to provide opportunities and spaces for these areas to thrive within their organization?

 

David  15:38

I truly appreciate that reframing. And, and as you were speaking, and I might have shared this with you before, and I don't know if I've shared this even on on this podcast before, there's a futurist who works with security in the military, Dr. Amy zolman. And she does a lot of work with like the top end generals in the military. And she had had asked them previously before, what they were built for, and they said, We were built for war. And she said, So but what did she and then she asked him, What do you spend the majority of your time doing right now? And when they did some research on that, they said, Really, we spend the majority of our time around disaster relief. And so her question to them was, so what you were built for, and what you do now are different? Do your people understand that the work that they do is changed. And so as you were discussing that, I was thinking that, you know, sometimes we think that our job is just to relay content to students, but we live in an age where it's just a myriad of other skills and supports, and, you know, social emotional learning, and, and, and supporting trauma and all those different things, you know, providing food, and there's so much more. And so I love all that you brought up there. Let me get into another question with you. Did you want to add on to that? No, no, no. Okay, good. So as a leader, I truly appreciate that you have never lost zeal for learning. So as you talk about those skills that our students need, the one that always comes up is curiosity. And and I know that you have that, and you model that. And it's so important as a leader, because what leaders model that allows their people, to them feel safe to them model those same kind of skills and attitudes within the organization. So with that said, you know, and I know you're always growing and evolving. Is there anything on your reading list right now? Besides, I know, you already brought up one book, anything that's really piqued your interest recently? Yes,

 

Jerry  17:58

yes, I'm glad you. So there's a book that I'm currently reading right now called Thrive. And that one talks about the purpose of school in a changing world. And it was it was introduced to me by one of my reverse mentors, who is a global influencer. And really, the book really talks about this, reimagining public education across the globe, and how, how, as a society, we are more interdependent upon each other than ever before in the history of mankind, how when one part of the world is impacted, it impacts all of us, either through supply change to global warming, through through migration. You know, and so it's just a real eye opener, talks about a couple of new emerging trends in public education that you can see, you know, you talked to earlier about identifying the signals out there in society. And you can see some of the signs that they're talking about in this book emerging in different parts of the world with our youth, and their lack of hope and how they're beginning to apprise in other countries and in China and Iran and win this war started out in Russia and Ukraine, and more recently, in the US and Tennessee, and with all of the these legislative actions happening, that people are feeling are unfair, the youth is really rising to the top and, and they're craving for to be hopeful about their future. And so with this book, it talks about those different scenarios, and some of the challenges that society we're facing, with educating our students for a future society to be healthy and productive and well rounded. And so that's an amazing read and I'd recommend it to anybody.

 

David  18:45

thank you. And let me build on that a little bit. And it kind of actually goes back to something that you discussed before, if you, if you if you want to bounce around this idea a little bit is that is becoming more and more important that, like you said, we're in a VUCA world. So it's really hard to see light at the end of the tunnel of what that's going to be. But we also have to be, I think, much more proficient at helping students anticipate a future that they're going to see themselves in. And I think one of the things we're kind of, like all kind of wrestling with right now is artificial intelligence. I think, you know, we know about automation, and we know that that really is affecting jobs. But AI, even though we've been talking about it, since 2016, has kind of hit the scene in a much more dynamic manner. You know, it, and I think you see that being wrestled with, across not only our own country, but other countries around education and, and business and other arenas. Is there anything you want to kind of speak on around that, because I know, it's something that you've looked at very early on?

 

Jerry  21:23

Sure. Sure. You know, at first I was just blown away by its capability is everybody else and the very quickly to the that, I think, you know that this is an opportunity. If we learn and embrace it early, then we can learn how to use it for good, and how to improve our, our craft in our in our, in our academic performance within the classroom and our leadership ability within school sites and districts, if we learn it at the early stages, and what it could be used for good. And so that's kind of the philosophy that I've taken as a superintendent, I'm taking the embrace it not ban it stance, and I'm lucky and fortunate enough to have a board of education, that that kind of sees it as the same opportunity is that we need to learn it and we need to grow, grow with it. And we need to learn how to use it for good and to improve opportunities across the district, I also see it as an equity issue is that those that have access to this type of technology, and learn from it will be able to, you know, thrive, learn faster, in you know, interpret, you know, content or curriculum in different ways. And so this is a game changer for communities that are low, or high socio economic communities, that levels the playing field, and potentially could be generational changing in their personal lives. If we learn how to use it in a right way that gives them opportunities that possibly don't even currently exist right now, with future jobs, skill sets and stuff like that. So for me, and for my district, and for a lot of my staff, it's let's learn it early, let's learn how to use it for good and Let's expose our our staff and our community to it for to give the opportunity to improve their skill set, but also thrive in whatever the future evolution of this has for for us.

 

David  23:30

And as I'm listening to you discuss it that the one thing that is coming back to me as the way that I mean, even your approach to AI is that that reframing just like the the quote that you brought out of imaginable, because you're seeing it more, I think sometimes we hear the word artificial intelligence, and it sounds scary, but you're coming at more from it. And it's generative AI and we know that there can be some, you know, not so good sides to it, but you're approaching it from an augmentation perspective. And seeing it as a tool, which, in the end, if we're going to use it as a tool, we're gonna have to think about so if we're using it to augment it takes us from that idea of that it's cheating to how do we utilize it to be more productive to enhance the skills that we already have to be more creative and how we ask questions or, or push responses out of it. That's the way it kind of came across to me as you were speaking, because a lot of what we've talked about today is really, you know, that reframing mindset that you're putting forward, so really appreciate that. I don't know if you want to add on to that. 

 

Jerry  24:54

Well, no, I mean, you know, I mean, it is scary. Honestly, it is scary. And there is a lot of unknown about it. But, you know, if you think about the two possibilities that could happen, if we learn it at an early stage, and we have good intentions about its use, then we can identify the good that can come out of it. If we ignore it, and we and other people, other countries, learn it, and use it, maybe for not so good intentions or for self serving intentions, then we become victims of it. And this is a moment in, in society, humanity, where we have the opportunity to make a conscious decision about which trajectory we're going to take. And for me, personally, I'm going to be as proactive as I possibly can, in the position that I serve with the community that I serve, to expose them to the good and the bad, so we can learn from it, and use it for the greater good of society, you know, my hope is that one of our kindergarteners is going to be you know, eventually find the cure to some disease that, you know, is out there that we can't find a cure for, or invent a product that is, you know, life changing when it comes to, you know, human nature. And so, it's just like, we have to learn how to use it early, so we can find the good in it.

 

David  26:25

And that perspective falls along with the foresight that you've been talking about, you know, and, and being able to understand that, you know, as leaders, we can't know everything, but we have to start to look around the corner. Otherwise, we become reactive. And in today's world, you know, today's VUCA world, with that volatility change is accelerating. It's not, it's not slowing down, it's speeding up, and it can move by us and make us irrelevant, really quick. So I really appreciate that perspective.

 

Jerry  27:03

And that's my fear, my fear is, like the adults are taking their time with this. And for me, there's a sense of urgency, right, because of the rapid pace that this is evolving, is we don't have time to be patient with this. We have to accelerate the the desire and the urgency of wrapping our heads around this earliest at this early stage. Because there are other countries and there are other organizations doing this. And if we're not careful, if we take our time, if we just be patient for things to happen, then it's going to be too late. I want to be on the on the I want to be at the table, when an if regulations kick in, I want to be able to say yes or no, don't you dare do that. And here's the reason why. Or I want to be an organization that uses it and then begins to thrive, that people organizations across the world come and see and say, How did you guys do this? What made you take these steps? You know, that's, that's really my mindset. And, and if leaders aren't thinking this way, if they're not open to learning about this, then what's going to happen is they're going to lead the way they've always lead, they're gonna get, they're gonna identify the solutions, they've always identified, and they're gonna get the results they've always got, where others who do embrace this mindset, who do embrace this different way of thinking, are going to begin to separate and thrive. And then you're going to have your haves and have nots. And for me, as a, as a superintendent, I'm trying to remain relevant to my community to society, so that I can have that ripple effect with other leaders across the globe. And say, look, here, it can be done. Here's here's how we learned it. Here's some ways that you can do it. But let's, let's have a conversation and be thought partners together. Because maybe you have your experiences are different, and I can learn from you. So it's that constant cycle of improvement science.

 

David  29:12

And and it's also that strategic foresight that you talked about, because now you're you're preparing the organization and the adults to be ahead of it, and to be thinking about scenarios. So where is this going? What's next? So then when things come, we're not reacting, we're actually proactively preparing our students. And I don't know if you want to add to this. I also know that you're a huge proponent of student agency. Yeah, yeah. I don't know if you want to say anything about that. But yeah.

 

Jerry  29:42

Yeah, yeah we can we can talk a little bit about that. But I'm going to close out with, you know, during COVID people, the most common question I was asked is like, what, what are we going to do? How are we going to come out of this? What's going to be different? And I struggle with with those responses because the lens that I was looking at was my lens as an educator 25 years prior to COVID. Well, for my 25 years in public education, not much has changed, right? We said we were changing, we talked about being future ready. But when COVID hit the reality, also hit saying that we weren't as future ready as we thought we were going to be. And I think the author Peter Drucker coined it perfectly. He said, If you want to predict the future, you have to create it. And post COVID, that's the charge is, we're not waiting around, we're creating, we're going to create the future. And we don't necessarily know what that looks like. But we know we have to do something different, which leads into the student voice question. And one of the things that we did during COVID, was pull about at community leaders together and had a conversation with the help of the National Center for economics and education, which is a global research organization, to look at high performing educational organizations across the globe. Because we wanted to identify what characteristics those countries and those organizations had, and then kind of relate them to the practices here in Santa Ana. And what we discovered is there were some select similarities, but there were also a lot of differences. And so out of the seven month conversation during COVID, via zoom, we developed what was called the graduate profile, which is our community's expectations of students when they leave Santa Ana Unified School District. And after that, creation of that, and the board took formal action to adopt it, we began to roll it out. But the way we rolled it out was the way we've always rolled things up. We brought it to our principals, we had a conversation, we asked them, let's calibrate what these eight characters is gonna look like. And then let's create a plan for next year. So in one of these meetings, one of my principals was listening to the dialogue that was taking place, which was pretty similar to the dialogue that's been taking place for the past 25 years. And she raised her hand and she said, Mr. Almendarez  can I stop you for a second? I said, Yes, she goes, you're asking us to calibrate what these characteristics are. She was I want you to look around the room. So we look around the room. And there's a bunch of administrators, a bunch of assistant principals, district leaders, and she goes, we're creating a system for kids, without the kids even been here at the table. And you could hear a pin drop, when she made that comment. And it was at that point that we thought, You know what, we better pause because you're right, we're gonna pause what we're doing. And this wasn't at the meeting. But after reflecting on that, that day, Executive Cabinet came back, and we decided to pause on moving forward with those conversations with the adults. And we went out and did a 600 student listening tour, where our research department randomly selected students that reflected the communities in the schools that they were in. So we spent the next six weeks visiting 12 different schools, and having conversations around the graduate profile. And we had a really interesting moment when we discovered at the end of this process, that the kids were completely on a different had a different set of expectations than the adults had. And so we pause there, and we transitioned into a different way of handling student, the student needs, which were social emotional needs, one student said, Mr. Almendarez, you can create the best lesson in the world. But I could care less if I know that you don't care about me. And the students at post COVID really wanted that adult human interaction. They wanted to know that the adults really cared. And I think we talked about strategic foresight, and we talked about doing things different. That's how we began this transition out of COVID at Santa Ana Unified. We started to have conversations with teachers and ask them, Why do you? Why do they kill kids feel like you don't care? Well, the teachers were frustrated because they didn't feel like the principals were supporting it. You know, there's no subs, I had to combine classes. There was enough time for collaboration. All of these demands were put on the teachers. So we went to the principal's and we said, How come you guys aren't supporting the teachers? And you know what the principal said? You guys putting too much demands on us from the district office. Mr. Superintendent, you're asking us to do this, this, this, this this, which really hit us really hard, you know, as an executive cabinet. And they were right. And we felt like if we were going to make this transition, if we were going to create an environment where people felt valued, and felt vulnerable enough to try new things, and we as an executive cabinet as a governance team with the board, we had to change the way we operated. And so we started to we brought in a group called Harbinger, and helped us start to work on the adult mindset. And we spent all of last year doing that with our principals, our leadership team, our parents and our teachers.

 

David  35:12

And I, you know, and the one thing that I so truly appreciate there is that level of awareness, and that emotional intelligence to be open to, you know, what are our blind spots? And where do we need to really fill some gaps and have deeper reflective understandings of what we do as leaders. And and I also want to kind of chime in a bit. I know when Santa Ana unified hosted future ready and you had future ready there. You had student voice there, and the actual student was discussing, you know, how this has really affected them and change not only their life, but their future? And I believe if I'm correct, you know, going back, probably at least 10 years, when you were a superintendent and Colton, you were also doing community cabinets. And you were bringing students in to have voice there to. 

 

Jerry  36:12

Correct yeah, yeah. Well, and you know, the value behind that is like, so part of the expectation for public education is to survey our stakeholders, right? Well, you know, we did that for 10 years in Colton, and we did it like all like all kinds of other districts. But what we learned very quickly is that the responses you get on a survey are different than actually the responses you get in person. And a good example is we were interviewing kindergarten for not interviewing, but having listening sessions with kindergarten say, Well, we did different here in Santa that we did in Colton is we hired external facilitators. And the reason why we hired external facilitators is because I wanted myself and I wanted Executive Cabinet to really be able to sit down with the kids and just listen, not contribute not not, you know, give input, but we just wanted to sit there and listen. And so by by hiring these external facilitators, we were able to work with them, but they facilitated the conversation, which allowed us just to sit at the tables and listen to the kids. And I'll never forget, there were three kids one elementary one kindergartener at an elementary school, who these kids did not know each other because they were randomly selected. But this little kindergartener, when we asked what do you wish your teacher knew about you? Little kindergartner raised his hand, we gave him the microphone, he stood up and said, I don't learn well, sitting down for six hours. And the the adults in the room just like started getting teary eyed. Because a little kindergartner was brave enough to say, you know, I get tired, you know, sitting down for six hours and you talking to me, we had a middle middle school, young lady raised her hand, she got the mic, and she goes, I just wish the teacher would pronounce my name correctly. And then a high school sophomore said, I didn't want to go to my algebra class. Because before I even sit down in my chair, the teacher gives me a hard time, because of the way I look. Now, if we were to give a survey to those three kids, you would not get the anxiety, the tone or the tension in the Faces by that written survey, or by a computer generated survey. But when you're sitting down listening to these kids, you're seeing their body language, you're seeing them tear up or their voice start to crack. That's the game changer. And so when we talk about student voice in Santa Ana, we're talking about authentic engagement. When we talk about teacher apparent voice, we're talking about authentically engaging them. That is a survey but it's also interaction. And so we have community townhall meetings, we have student listening sessions, we have parent teacher listening sessions, we have administrator listening sessions. And, you know, it's not we're not perfect, we have a lot of work to do. But it really does work on improving those the human interaction and human relation part. Because we know we have a good pulse and what the issues are in not only with our adults, but with our students.

 

David  39:22

And going along with that, even going back in the conversation earlier, when you were talking about one of those consultants that you you have come in who brings that lens in support of just being a global game changer. That person is well versed also in design thinking. And so as you're we're discussing that that level of empathy that you're bringing into the process of really just spending time really an empathy interviews, I know you'd brought up continuous improvement, that empathy interview process where I don't Think you can get any deeper data, or better data to initiate the need for change than then that level of interaction. So now Yeah.

 

Jerry  40:14

And I tell you, it takes a lot of work, it's, there's no doubt it's, there's a lot of work to it, and I can see why organizations or people resort to electronic or paper surveys, right. But but the results are different. And, and if we're really going to impact change, if we're really going to have an influence on it, then we have to do the hard work, we have to do the hard work, we have to we were responsible to our to the new to the younger generation was responsible for our community, to be the game changers in this to provide opportunities that create a level playing field for our communities. And it's not done just through a survey, it can be that can be a part of it. But there's also got to be that authentic interaction as well.

 

David  41:00

And, and in today's world, you know, it's it's also supporting each other, because sometimes those conversations can have an emotional toll on everyone. And so, you know, building up to be able to not only bring out that really deep data that is really about understanding not numbers, but really people. It it, it requires a heavy lift. So no.

 

Jerry  41:34

And and David they do they adults, you know, we have to have the emotional intelligence to deal with some things that we may not like to hear. Yeah. And it's not because we're not trying to we're not doing a good job. It's because this is the way people really feel. And this is this is what, you know, challenges me when I think about the future leaders. And what are we doing to support them? Because if we're not providing opportunities for them to embrace this different way of thinking, we're providing them the skill set that allows them to navigate these these challenging this VUCA time, then they are going to create get into positions and then very quickly, they're going to turn over. And that doesn't help anybody.

 

David  42:17

Yeah. And and I think that kind of leads into the next question. Because I mean, you look across the country, and the superintendency is really difficult position right now, in keeping people in place. But let me share this question with you. So the life of the superintendent really is a 24/7 7 day a week proposition. So and I know that you also not only have that you have quite a travel to do every day. And I know that that can take a toll too. But so how do you manage your ability to support the organization and build capacity along with your need to continuously learn and build new capacities? And then to balance that and and really, something that we haven't talked about? Over the years until more recently is have wellness around that too?

 

Jerry  43:14

Yeah, well, I think it is a challenge. And you know, I'm just lucky to have a wife that understands the work that I do. She's an educator as well, there's, none of this would be possible without her support. And so, you know, one, I've been blessed to find the right, my, my partner in that respect to the second response to that is, unfortunately, I've had, I've made some mistakes when it comes to the physical wellness, over time, I've just been blessed to be able to recover from those and learn from them. So you know, I don't share this publicly very often. But I've been in the hospital three times as, as a superintendent, and I've been a superintendent for 13 years. And fortunately, all three times that I was in the hospital it was it was stress related. And I remember the last time the doctor coming up to me saying, you know, I got good news, and I got bad news. I said, What's, what's the good news? He says, The good news is your, your tests and your X rays came back negative. So I'm thinking, Okay, what's the bad news. And he goes, the bad news is if you don't change something, you may not walk out of here next time. And that really hit that was I think I was in my early 40s, when that happened. And so you know, we have to be mindful that we're not able to take care of others if we can't take care of ourselves. And it's not just the physical taking care of ourselves, but the mental taking care of ourselves. And what I've done over time, since then, is, you know, I talked about reverse mentors. I have a lot of mentors that have been superintendents are in leadership positions that are retired now. And I have a combination of both. I have I have those that I can call and say man, I don't know how you did this. Tell me how you navigated this and then I have my reverse mentors. Well, I call and say, Hey, tell me what I need to be prepared for. So I can begin planning. And it's, it's having thought partners and I and David, I consider you to be one of those mentors. And you know, we have many conversations and you keep me up to speed on a lot of the research. And it's because of individuals like you that take keep me on the forefront of these emergent trends that allow me to bring a certain level of excitement, one to my job that keeps me coming into work, and excited about it, but to the confidence knowing that I am actually having an impact on a system that is getting ready for future. And, and so it's just, you know, eat but everybody's different. And we have to navigate that are different ways. But having multiple avenues to to address your physical as well as your mental health are vitally important to any leader in today's environment.

 

David  45:56

Oh, yeah. And just add to that, it, it's a lot easier to learn about it. But it's incredibly inspirational to watch someone who's actually making it happen in an organization. So watch a new model that and the the approach that you take to supporting your organization, and the willingness to put yourself out there and sometimes be vulnerable as a learner, that I've seen allows other people, I think, to step up and and feel comfortable to learn, because in a lot of organizations, we don't see learning as it should be, is it we we sometimes create knowing organizations, that attitude when we really should be creating learning organization? So yeah, so I truly appreciate this. And so now, I know, I don't want to take too much of your time, because I know you're really busy. And, and love having this conversation. I could just keep going. But I have one last question for you. And we'll kind of wrap it up for today. And I really appreciate you being on and sharing just a lot of incredible insights. But so after everything we talked about, what do you think is maybe next for the future of learning and for education?

 

Jerry  47:22

Yeah, so, you know, a couple of different things that I've been thinking about in the future. So some of the questions that we keep having conversations around are, you know, with the emergence of AI, and an AR, is like, Why? Why does school have to begin at 8 and end at 230? Why do kids and staff have to come in five days a week? Can Can there be an am session in a pm session? Can kids attend school, at a brick and mortar facility? Three days out of the week, and then remotely? Two days out of the week? Can we use augmented reality? And and have kids maybe virtually be present in a classroom that serves the same purpose of what current what's currently happening in our brick and mortar classrooms? You know, just different playing different scenarios like that. Why can't we attract students from other countries to be a part of our system? And get the ADA year credit for for those to increase enrollment? Can we have classrooms that really are stationed in industry buildings, you know, and private industry? As pathways? You know, how can we work differently with universities, it's just those are the type of conversations and the future that we're kind of having conversations around through the umbrella of the framework for strategic foresight. There are a lot of challenges, legislative challenges out there. But what we're trying to do is have the conversations so our legislators can start hearing the questions that we have.

 

David  49:10

And going back to the beginning of today's conversation, we talked about the word relevance. And the one thing that really strikes me about everything you said there is that what I've seen from leaders who are are moving into really relevant spaces with organizations aren't leading with answers. They're leading with questions. And so I really appreciate that. Because if we're not asking the questions, and we're only providing answers, we're not only not building capacity, we're probably not moving into spaces that we need to be moving into with our thinking. So I truly love that. So do you have any last words?

 

Jerry  49:54

Yeah, yeah. And it doesn't just have to be with an education field. So we've reached out to industry outside of education to be thought partners with us. And I don't know why we didn't do this sooner, you know. And so tapping into private industry and having them come in and say, hey, you know, we're thinking about the classroom or the future, can you? Can you help us, like interpret that, you know, the architect firms? And, you know, a lot of responses we get is like, Well, nobody's ever asked us that. Well, let's have a conversation, what does it look like? You know, and that will help us backwards map. That's like identifying one of the scenarios. So, so my encouragement and the reason of what I want to close is, we don't always have to rely on our colleagues or educational partners, to have this discussion. We need a variety of partners to come together not all from education to really be thought partners, and have this conversation about what is the future of education look like?

 

David  50:55

And just to build on that, I won't say who it was. But I remember you telling me there was a very futuristic company that you reached out to, and they, they weren't just like, willing to take your call. They were like, excited. Yeah, like, they just like, Wow, can we get with you? And let's do it. Let's look at how we can do some things together. And so that's, I think the most important thing is kind of like being on Twitter, and just saying, hey, you know, would you come speak at my school? And the person goes, Oh, yeah, you know, sometimes you just have to reach out and ask people. And so I love that. I really want to thank you for your time, because I know you're incredibly busy. But I also know that you can bring a lot to building insights and and helping people look at leadership during the time that can be really difficult. And so I thank you, thank you for sharing your wisdom today. And it's just been great to have you on our podcast. So thank you very much. And thank you for all you do.

 

Jerry  52:02

You got it. David, thank you for the invitation. And I do anything for you, my friend, you know that so I enjoyed today's conversation as well. 

 

David  52:09

I truly appreciate you. Thank you. On behalf of San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools and myself, we want to thank you again for tuning in for this episode of the Learning Leader Lab. And we look forward to you joining us again for future episodes as we engage leaders inside and outside of our county to explore leadership that is having real impact for the future.