David Creswell , superintendent of Ventura Unified School District, has just begun his second year working for the district. In his first year, within a few months, the Thomas Fire ravaged the status quo, both for the community and for the school district. But the fire was just one particular issue facing children, and teachers and parents as well. Public education spans a gamut of services that go beyond just academics, a point that Creswell emphasized. That includes school safety, leadership, college versus career preparation, counseling and much more. The district this year has also started a rebranding effort, approved unanimously by the Ventura Unified School District board of trustees at $138,000.
“It was time for the district to re-examine who we are, what our mission is and who our customers were. Public education is not the only education option for parents today. We want to be the preferred option, not by default but by choice. Branding is part of getting that message out,” said John Walker, president of the board.
Creswell, who prefers to go by Dave, sat down with the VCReporter before the school year began to discuss education, goals and balancing objectives.
VCReporter: Why did you first get into education?
Creswell: My interest was in the sciences and I graduated high school and went to university as a botany major. I found in a short period of time — I love botany and field botany — that was not what I thought it was. I have been a hiker, backpacker, and I just appreciated plants and botany and the study and the science behind it. The university I went to was very interested in botany as far as forestry, lumber harvest, bugs that eat trees that we want to use for wood, and it was just like, this is not what I thought. So I came back, kinda grew up in the Long Beach area and I went to a community college, and I was trying to figure out what I needed to be interested in. I joined a friend of mine in a furniture-building class that he was taking and got into woodworking and just loved it. I was taken in by professor as an intern, and one day it dawned on me that I loved woodworking and I could make a living by teaching it.
But I had parents and relatives that were teachers and had always loved that. That was the turning point with [the furniture-building class]; I am going to Long Beach university and get a teaching credential.
It’s clear that teachers and administration, people in general, may not agree on certain decisions or methods. How do you handle conflicts?
I think that’s life. There are times when things, people are going together in the same direction, working through that. That is the good stuff. That’s not a problem; that’s what’s challenging.
There are all kinds of frustrations in public education. Doing things that are really important but they are unfunded, knowing that you need to spend more time on planning and training and staff, and the hours aren’t there. There’s always perennial things. Education too, like many things, is on a huge pendulum; so on one hand we are just totally focused on vocations and getting kids career-ready and then the next decade, every kid is going to college; forget trades and hands-on, let’s focus on college. It goes back and forth.
We are at a crux right now. It seems like we have been very focused on college. And vocation needs to come back in. There needs to be a … Balance
Tell us about that path of vocational training. It seems that some people are falling through the cracks on college-ready. They are just not college-ready or -bound and it seems like there isn’t a lot of vocational training.
I guess I wouldn’t say falling through the cracks. Students have choice and opportunity that we aren’t automatically saying you are going to college or none of you are going to college, that they have the ability to make that choice and have those opportunities. There are always people that are plugged in and able to work the system, and people that are marginalized that are not a part of that. Providing equal opportunities for kids, that is what is critical. I totally support kids that want to go to college and students that say, plumbing fascinates me, or building homes, or writing code or technology. I think there is a place for all of that.
What are your priorities for this coming school year, programs or courses, or a new way of directing things?
Let me start with the big picture. Schools nowadays do everything; 40 years ago, academics only. Parents did not want us talking about citizenship, social morals, ethics; it was just academics. We do everything: counsel, social, emotional. We do personal, we do academics, transportation, nutrition, counseling services, and so to say, what are the goals? The first goal, to keep all those things going, which is a tough task. And then, within that, we have specific goals for each year. For 2018-19, a focus on math achievement, finding kids potentiality, maybe we are not offering classes we should. With regard to remediation or advancement, or kids bailing or dropping out, math is a goal of ours. School safety , a huge goal, what’s going on nationally, with school shootings and violence.
How is that setting the tone emotionally for kids?
It’s tough. Man, it’s something we deal with every time we hear of it in surrounding areas and wonder if kids are more resilient; and some are really rattled, same with adults. So that’s clearly a focus. Our third goal, the general term, is positive school culture. We all know what we need to do, focusing on how we do that. Are we bringing people along and communicating and winning them over? Or are we just doing mandates, get on board or else?
Those are kind of our specific goals.
What do you see that is a strong attribute of Ventura Unified?
First of all, there is tremendous pride in this city and this district. Through long-term, people graduate, they stay, their kids go here, their grandkids go here, a tremendous amount of pride and that’s great. Through the Thomas Fire, I saw a tremendous amount of people willing to give and support and remedy, and so that’s part of that pride. I think the second for the school district, there is choice here. School choice and programs, where you go to school. That’s incredibly uncommon. Most districts, you live within a school boundary, you go to that school. You have this program and not that program, that’s what you get. But here you have school of choice and ability to shop for programs or pathways or schools.
What are some of the pathways kids are choosing as of late?
Pathways in medical professions, in industrial applications, in STEM, technology. We have one school where the focus is leadership (ATLAS), which is phenomenal. We have schools in the arts or multiple languages, a lot of variety and generic great standard schools.
I think the other thing I have found that is very unique to Ventura Unified, a ton of amazing things going on that nobody knows about.
A group of eighth- and ninth-graders at DATA call themselves STEMBassadors. They actually staff development for teachers, teachers that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology. There are very few programs like that. The leadership academy at ATLAS School in Saticoy, you walk on and a third-grader will walk up and shake your hand and look you in the eye and say, “I can give you a tour, do you have any questions?” It’s just phenomenal; those things are going on all over in music and arts and lots of different programs.
How are the students after the Thomas Fire?
We anticipated any and all challenges, coming back from the fire, so we had teams of school psychologists who wanted to be nimble and be able to react, so we planned for the worst and expected the best. The kids really surprised us how well they came back, how resilient they were. Not that we didn’t have issues; they exceeded all of our expectations and getting back on track and moving forward. The teachers handled it well. A lot of teachers lost their homes, lost everything they had. Again, district and community coming together, in my opinion, to have more support, remedies and answers than the need; that was pretty cool to see.