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Q&A with new CUSD superintendent Jeff Wilson

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

In a 4-1 vote, with Steven Llanusa dissenting, Claremont Unified School District’s Board of Education approved the hiring of Jeff Wilson last week as its new superintendent.

Mr. Wilson starts July 1, taking over for interim Superintendent Julie Olesniewicz, who stewarded the district after the departure of Jim Elsasser in December 2020. His starting salary is $273,646 per year, plus benefits.

He has 28 years’ experience as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent, and currently serves as superintendent for San Marino Unified School District. He holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Cal State Fullerton, a master of divinity from Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, a master of science degree in educational leadership from Cal State Fullerton, and a doctor of education degree from Azusa Pacific University.

Born, raised and still living in Glendora, Mr. Wilson is a 1980 graduate of Glendora High School. His wife of 33 years, Corrine, teaches fourth grade in the El Monte City School District. The couple’s adult daughter is a burn unit nurse.

The COURIER welcomed Mr. Wilson to his new post with an introductory interview. His answers were edited for brevity.

How would you describe your management style?

“I think it’s relational for sure, and collegial. There’s a tool a lot of institutions use called the strengths finder that Gallup put out years ago. We use it in Arcadia with our leadership team. One of my strongest strengths is as a maximizer; That means I’m able to get the best out of people by recognizing their knowledge, their intelligence and what they do well, and really empowering them to be excellent.”

What is the most important quality of an effective leader?

“Wow, that’s a good one. I’m going to say humility, because A, in a position like this, you can never know it all. Public education is so complex, that you really have to rely on the expertise of your team. I would describe it as understanding my strengths and my weaknesses and surrounding myself with people that supplement me and help me. Certainly I’m hands on, and have pretty wide technical knowledge, but I think with the complex decision making that occurs as a superintendent, it really behooves us to tap into multiple thoughts and stakeholders and inputs to really make wise decisions. The humility to really listen to my board members is also a really important quality, because they come from different perspectives and bring a level of expertise that I can’t. They have the community knowledge. I’d say humility is what I’ve grown into as a leader.”

What are your thoughts on work/life balance?

“Early in my career, up until a couple years ago, I prided myself on the idea that I would outwork anyone. In fact, people who would provide me references would say that. So I always felt like hard work was something I put as a premium. But I think as I’ve grown older and wiser, and doubled back, family has become very, very important to me. And it really grounds me. I think to balance this job, you have to find time where you can check out. Because this job can encircle you 24-seven. You have to find that balance where you have some time with your family, and that’s been really, really important to me. My wife and I have been married coming up on 33 years, and actually have been dating since I was a senior in high school at Glendora High. So that’s an important piece as I’m sure you’re aware, as you move later in life. That’s what you return to, right?”

What’s your proudest accomplishment in life?

“I would say it was raising—and I always try to be humble about this—an amazing daughter. She is a burn unit intensive care unit nurse in Torrance, and you really have to deal with people and families at their lowest moment. She’s an amazing combination of strong, empathetic, decisive and data driven. In just under four years of being in the burn unit, she’s already risen to the position of lead of the overnight unit. So I’m very, very proud of the woman she’s become.”

In work?

“I think it has been to empower people to become innovative and to take risks in their jobs. I would harken back to Arcadia, when my great boss allowed me the latitude and the resources to really iterate the educational program away from a manufacturing model into a personalized model. Part of that was opening a lab school. I was able to work with architects to design spaces and really turn the education on its head. It was focused on brain research and empowering the educators to take really significant risks in how they were delivering the standards. And it was a risk because you had this group of kids that, if you got it wrong, they could be set back in their educational journey. And at the end of year one it was really satisfying to see that every one of those kids not only kept up, but actually outperformed their school peers.”

What were you naïve about when you started your career?

“I guess that everybody would always give their best effort. I would say as an educator I came to it as an idealist, and I think I’ve kept that idealist mantra throughout my career. I still wake up every single day believing the best things are going to happen. Even when I get beat up the day before, people would say I always come to work with a smile on my face and really ready to take on the next challenge. I think that we have to keep that idealism in education and pass that on to our kids, because I think we all believe education is the greatest way to change this world, certainly with kids who are struggling or who are at-risk.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about working in education?

“I was a principal at the time, and a superintendent said to me and my colleagues, ‘You’re not allowed to show your anger. You have to keep your head in the midst of difficult circumstances.’ And that has always resonated with me. So, even when pressure is high, you have to keep your head about you. And that’s paid off. As a principal, and certainly as a superintendent, you’re often  put in positions where somebody wants to put you on the defensive. So it really has helped me to organize my mind in the midst of conflict to calm myself.”

 

When this process began, the board made a point to say it endorsed hiring a new superintendent who reflected the district’s demographics—which are roughly 40 percent white. Board members also expressed the desire to seek out a female candidate. In the end, they hired another middle-aged white man. What is your strategy for addressing concerns about diversity and inclusion at CUSD?

“When I was considering placing my application in the pool, I had read some of the comments in the COURIER about that. I think the first thing for somebody like me is to recognize that I can’t know the lived experience of others. I can only know the lived experience of myself. So for me that means I have to spend a lot of time with people, be with people, and listen to them deeply, to what their concerns are, and be a resource where I can be a resource. We dealt with some of the very difficult issues last year in San Marino. In fact, we were involved pretty early because of an incident that happened with an alumnus in Pasadena, where he drove his car through a group of peaceful protesters. The guy’s name was Bennie Hung. He was a Mr. San Marino football guy from way back when, I think the class of 2012 or 2013. So that really sort of ignited a firestorm that we dealt with pretty early. I know every district went through that. I think what I found that worked was to recognize that I needed help. So that’s who I am. I’m not going to get out over my skis where I’m trying to speak on behalf of a group or a person. I really try to understand the lived experience in a very empathetic way. I was able to bring in somebody to help us with that. And it just turned out to be wonderful. She really helped bring us through that time together, and I was able to be part of the team, and not necessarily having to facilitate everybody through that process. I learned a lot through that process, [to] engage the community and not be afraid of controversial voices. That’s another piece I think I learned along the way, because you can learn from that. So that really helped as we gathered all the voices of the community in such a way that the board members were able to clearly articulate in their resolution. And it wasn’t just a slapped together resolution that we boiler-plated from some other district. It really did reflect the process that we went through. So for me, as we addressed that together, it was just being as authentic as I can, and as empathetic as I can, listen together, and then make some substantive decisions together that really help to reinforce my true heart. One thing to know is my doctoral work was around how to engage at-risk learners in high performing schools. That was what the work was about. I have a deep passion for engaging all learners. And that’s what led to my focus on personalized learning, because I truly believe that if we could unlock that lock on how to really find a touchstone with every learner, in a way that makes sense to them, that’s the most equitable thing that I could do as an educator.”

What’s your first priority on July 1?

“Get to know the people of Claremont. That would include obviously district personnel, site leaders, teachers, PTAs, foundation leaders, get to know my board better. So really I’d like to meet in a significant way 100 people in 100 days. And I think I’ll actually see that along the way. I think that’s super important in getting ready for schools to reopen. And then it’s going to be jumping in and getting to know the kids. I do think it’s really a superintendent knows the students and spends time with the students. Student voice is so key in today’s world in our schools.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“I’m super excited to be here. I would like to say a big shout and thank you to Dr. Olesniewicz and the cabinet. When you think about the fact that she not only had to do her job, but step into a breach and guide the district, alongside the stable hand of the board of education of course, that really helped Claremont during a very difficult time of this pandemic. I just look forward to working side by side with Julie and the team. Obviously I’m aware that I’m following a fabulous leader in Dr. Elsasser. I think he did such a great job in guiding the district for eight-plus years. I’m going to continue on that idea of academic excellence, the whole child approach. One if the things that was exciting to me is the individuality of each of the school sites, how they have their own culture and traditions. I think Jim did a great job with that. So I’m looking forward to just immersing myself and learning and learning and learning through this first year.”

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