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CUSD’s Bonnie Bell moves on to bigger job as superintendent

Having guided Claremont schools through one of the most transformative periods in curriculum in recent history, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Bonnie Bell is on to an even more challenging role.

After four -and-a-half years with the Claremont Unified School District, she will be helming the Lowell Joint School District (LJSD) in the Whittier/La Habra Heights area. Becoming a school superintendent may sound like a daunting proposition, but Ms. Bell takes loads of preparation to her new job.

She has been in education for more than 30 years, moving from classroom teacher to school site administrator to assistant superintendent. Most recently before coming to CUSD, she was assistant superintendent of educational services at the Buena Park School District.  Her educational background includes a bachelor’s in liberal studies from Cal State Fullerton, a master’s degree from the University of La Verne and a doctorate in educational organization from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

While leaving CUSD, where she has forged lifelong friendships, feels “bittersweet,” Ms. Bell is ready for the next stage in her career.

“When they offered me the position, I excitedly accepted,” she said. “I don’t apply for a position that I’m not totally interested in and that I haven’t researched and vetted prior to applying.”

Working with CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser—who has been lauded by staff for bringing stability and civility to the district—was an invaluable part of her journey, Ms. Bell said.

“Dr. Elsasser has been an incredible friend and mentor to me, and will continue to be so to me as I transition. He’s been extremely supportive to me in my endeavors to be promoted to a superintendency.”

As for CUSD’s superintendent, he says it’s a no-brainer that Ms. Bell will excel as the head administrator for LJSD. She’s been crucial as the district moved from the old state standards to the new Common Core curriculum, according to Mr. Elsasser.  

“Bonnie has done an outstanding job of working collaboratively with our teachers and administrators and supporting teaching and learning,” he said. “She’s provided an enormous amount of professional development for our staff. She also took the lead role in developing the Local Control Accountability Plan and involving stakeholders throughout the community.”

Mr. Elsasser senses it is no coincidence that CUSD has made huge strides to close educational gaps during Ms. Bell’s tenure.

“One thing that jumps out at me most is that there’s an organization called the Education Trust West that releases a report card every year, ranking California’s largest unified school districts on academic and college readiness,” he said.

The nonprofit’s California District Report Cards assess the schools based on how well they are serving Latino, African-American and low-income students.

“When Bonnie came to the district in 2010, the report card for the prior year was released and we were 48th out of 149—we just squeezed in the top third,” Mr. Elsasser said. “Fast-forward to 2013 and we tied for third place among the 149 districts that received grades and rankings. Obviously that’s a credit to our teachers, to our administrators and to our families and everyone working together. But Dr. Bell brought leadership in the area of academics that helped us all work together to make that incredible growth possible.”

Lisa Shoemaker, assistant superintendent of business services, has worked closely with Ms. Bell in developing a plan for how best to use federal funds as the district moves towards full Common Core implementation.

“She was so knowledgeable and informed and collaborative,” Ms. Shoemaker said. “The collaborative piece is really important in terms of the LCAP, because it’s intended to be representative of the goals of the district as a reflection of the educational community in Claremont. Having very little guidance from the state she—oh, my gosh—did such an amazing job on that!”

School Board President Steven Llanusa said he was happy to provide a glowing recommendation of Ms. Bell to the Lowell Joint School District.

“Bonnie Bell was so instrumental in guiding this district through the process of changing from the California State Standards to the Common Core,” he emphasized. “Bonnie created staff development events and professional development days that were beneficial to teachers by giving them the tools to review and develop Common Core standards-based lessons.

“I am sorry to see her go, but she is leaving us well-prepared,” he said.

Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Kevin Ward said the district is making every effort to find a standout replacement.  

“What we’re doing right now is the big search, going out, using national publication. We’re really looking for that next leader,” he said. “I think the primary function of the next leader of this department is going to be facilitating the Common Core implementation, coupled with instructional technology like iPad roll-outs. There are some big shoes to fill.”

On Thursday, Ms. Bell was feted by her peers and attended her last school board meeting. Friday is her final day with the district.

Ms. Bell will be moving to a larger district, and one that doesn’t have its own high school, so there are some differences between CUSD and Lowell Joint Union. There are also, however, some significant parallels.

“The ethnic distribution is fairly similar and it is a high-achieving school district, similar to CUSD,” she said.

Ms. Bell will say goodbye to people she has grown to love, but says she feels some comfort knowing that as she leaves, the district is well-prepared to immerse itself further into the Common Core and the digital revolution.

As for her colleagues, their message to Ms. Bell is universal: Good luck to a great leader.

“I think she’ll be a very successful superintendent,” Mr. Elsasser said. “She is very talented, she knows instruction, she works well with people and she values community support and input. She’s a very collaborative person and she’ll do very well.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com