Earlier this fall, PUSD’s new Superintendent, Randy Booker, spoke to parents about his priorities for Piedmont schools and why we — parents, teachers, administrators — should all “Be Bold” in pursuing our goals. PEF volunteer Jen Colton spoke with Booker more recently, asking him to expand on his message and to share some lesser-known facts about the District and himself, including his heroes and a secret fear.
Jen Colton: Let’s talk about Piedmont. Why Piedmont? You must have had offers to go to many different districts.
Randy Booker: Well, I started as an assistant principal 13 years ago off the heels of being interim principal at Albany HS. Recognizing I had a lot to learn in education, I was fortunate to work with then- superintendent Connie Hubbard, who was a real mentor to me. Pam Bradford had been here 17 years as a principal and there was an assistant principal position that Connie and Pam encouraged me to apply for. In the two of them I knew I had an unbeatable chance to learn from some of the best.
I’m really drawn to a small district with an engaged community. You have the chance to build lasting relationships with people. Also, you can’t hide; in other words, you are who you are, and you know that you’re going to have to be accountable to people whom you see on a regular basis. I think this is great because it attracts a certain kind of person who wants to work in this environment.
What I love about Piedmont, in particular, is that it is a community of incredibly knowledgeable people on educational issues, locally, statewide, and nationally. It forces me and the team to really know our stuff coming to the table. I love this because we come together as learners. When we come together we collectively know more. We get stronger. Parents come to the table wanting to say their piece, but they learn, too.
JC: You talked about “Bold Moves” in your convocation and also created the hashtag #PiedmontBold – what you do mean by that?
RB: When you’re an educator the easy thing to do is to find something you’re good at and keep doing it. There’s something to be said about that when you hone your craft, but I want people to push themselves in their ability to engage students. I’m giving the staff permission to try to tackle something that they don’t think they’re good at. Maybe it’s a bit out of their comfort zone.
And to be clear, Piedmont has made lots of bold moves in the past – we offer an extraordinary education – so I want us to continue to strive for it going forward.
JC: How do we balance your mandate for “no more debt/deficit spending” – with staying educationally relevant?
RB: I think we’ll get there by being smart. Collaborating to preserve the “educational footprint” to cope with the significant lack of funds from the state is a budget strategy that got us through the recent recession. While most California districts suffered from the instability of drastic reductions, Piedmont’s program emerged relatively intact. Thoughtful decisions, reserve funds, and the collaborative efforts of staff (salary concessions and furlough days), community (donations and parcel tax), helped preserve valuable academic programs.
When you consider that many districts are still piecing themselves back together after the recession, Piedmont is ahead of the game. Not only have we sustained our tradition of academic excellence, but we now have a Professional Development Center, a student Wellness Center, a robust social-emotional curriculum, among other hallmarks of an outstanding school system. Did you know that the metrics used to evaluate our placement in Newsweek’s ranking (#25 in the US) – such as counselor ratio per student, library services – were maintained throughout the recession, thanks to the flexibility and generosity of our community, parents and staff?
JC: The state of California is notorious for underfunding education. How do you handle that?
RB: We must continue to be thoughtful and strategic. The state continues to be unreliable in how it funds public schools – and we will face budgeting challenges in the coming years. I want us check our assumptions, to examine whether doing things differently may be better.
Meeting challenges is a lot easier when you have the collaborative support of an organization like the Ed Foundation. Not only have they helped rally the community to keep us whole, but with their support, we’ve stayed ahead of the game. Seven years ago, PEF tipped the scale to ensure class sizes stayed the same. And, when everyone else cut “extras” like professional development, PEF came through, funding things like our teacher evaluation system. We closely evaluate how to keep our teachers on the cutting edge technologically and review how they’re engaging students with technology across common core math, new science standards and so forth. We have seen what happens when teachers do this well, and student engagement goes way up. Teachers rising to the challenge – work that PEF helps to underpin – makes working in this district exciting.
Just last week, PEF presented us with a grant of almost $2.7 million – directly supporting essential programs – happening in classrooms right now! It’s everything from K-12 teaching libraries, academic counseling, technology, STEM electives, the Wellness Center, the College and Career Center, teachers’ aides, art, music, and more. This community’s support for public education is truly remarkable.
JC: How do we encourage parents to engage?
RB: I really want parents to communicate with the teachers and build a dialog. If you think about the important conversations you can have with educators you want that to be at the teacher level, not the principal or the superintendent level. Talk to your teachers. And I think parents will find that they’re opening the door for conversation and extended learning.
And for getting involved with the bigger picture, there are so many ways to learn more about their child’s school and about how things work. Attend Parent Club meetings to hear from the principal and soak up the culture of the school; join Site Councils to dig in on the curriculum; get to Budget Advisory Meetings if you want to understand the numbers about school funding; get to Speaker Series to hear from authors and experts from around the country talk about ideas on learning, psychology, development, parenting.
JC: Any last words?
RB: I admire our educators so much. The work they do is magical, and it takes a certain person to rise to those challenges.
Did you Know Superintendent Booker and his family were circus performers? That’s a story in and of itself! Here are some additional fun facts about your new Supt:
- Who is your favorite super hero?
I like Spiderman – because he’s kind of got this nerdy alter-ego but he’s sarcastic and confident underneath it all. In our family we’re a little bit that way, too. Our sense of humor is like that – especially my kids’. I also love that he got his powers as a teenager.
- What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? This is a tough one – but I think it comes down to coffee.
- Which famous person alive or dead would you have lunch with? Well, he isn’t really famous, but I heard so many stories about this man – it would have to be my grandfather. I never met him, but he was a one-star general in WWII – and he’s the one who got my family involved in the circus. He was stationed in the Presidio, and Ronald Reagan was one of his officers.
- What are you secretly afraid of? Ants – ants in my house. My kids and wife make fun of me, but they kind of freak me out.
- Favorite social media channel? Twitter! I love twitter – check out #piedmontbold. I may be the only administrator in the world advocating teachers and students to pull out their cell phones and learn with them — but I think this is one of many bold moves we can consider to use great tools at our disposal for education and learning.