Interview with Deneen Guss, Ed.D. - Monterey County Superintendent of Schools on Educational Leadership
About Deneen Guss, Ed.D.: Deneen Guss is the Monterey County Superintendent of Schools, a position she has held since 2019. With over 35 years of experience in public education and over 25 years as an education leader in Monterey County, Dr. Guss has applied her expertise in and commitment to school improvement to ensuring that the diverse student population of Monterey County receive the support and customized learning programs they need to succeed. Prior to her position as Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Guss served as Deputy Superintendent of the Monterey County Office of Education (MCOE).
As Monterey County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Guss oversees Monterey County’s fiscal budget, advocates for increased funding to support student and teacher programs, and coordinates and evaluates Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPS) in alignment with MCOE’s mission. During the COVID-19 pandemic’s peak, Dr. Guss organized COVID safety measures and PPE distribution for MCOE staff and the 24 school districts and 8 charter schools in her county, implemented online learning programs and initiatives to increase students’ access and equity, and coordinated staff and student vaccinations across the County. Her adaptability and creative problem solving has enabled MCOE to see improvements in student learning outcomes even in the face of the pandemic’s challenges.
Dr. Guss received her Bachelor of Arts in Education from California State University Dominguez Hills, her Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from San Jose State University, and her Doctor of Education from Argosy University. In addition to her work as Monterey County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Guss is a Core Convener for the Bright Futures Cradle to Career Initiative, and serves on several Boards, including the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team Board, The Bob Hoover Academy, the YMCA, and the Girl’s Inc. of the Central Coast.
Educational Leadership Interview Questions
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have an overview of your role and responsibilities as Monterey County Superintendent of Schools? How do you develop, implement, and oversee programs and initiatives that support the 75,600 students across Monterey County’s 24 local school districts? Could you elaborate on both your typical short-term responsibilities as well as your long-term goals as Superintendent?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] In my role as Monterey County Superintendent of Schools, my team and I provide leadership, support, and service to the 24 school districts and their 135 schools, as well as the 8 charter schools that together serve 75,600 students in Monterey county. We also operate direct student programs that are more cost-effective and efficient to offer on a county-wide basis.
My major statutory responsibility is to provide fiscal oversight, which encompasses reviewing and approving the financial status of district budgets and the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPS), report certifications, and the fiscal impacts of collective bargaining agreements. We want to make sure that all districts under our purview remain fiscally solvent, and support them by reviewing all of their financials on a regular basis. All school districts are required to provide regular reports to our County Office of Education so that we can look at their budgets, assess their obligations, and check that they have enough funding to meet their financial obligations two additional years out. School districts must be financially secure for a period of three years.
If we have any concerns, we work with the school district to make sure that they make necessary changes. In fact, we have a district right now in our county that has a county trustee that supports the district by making sure that all decisions made at the board level will keep them on track to meet their financial recovery plan. Several years ago, they made a decision at the bargaining table that put them in debt, and they had to get a loan from the state. They are still paying off that loan, and we are supporting them in their fiscal recovery. Fiscal solvency is absolutely crucial, because if you are not fiscally solvent, you can’t operate. If you can’t operate, then you can’t provide the educational services our students deserve.
Our office also provides Differentiated Assistance to districts identified by the state as needing additional support to improve student achievement. The state identifies its priority areas, and they rate each district using a color system on a dashboard on these priority areas. If the district is color coded as red or orange, it indicates the district needs to make improvements and they qualify for extra support, which is called Differentiated Assistance. My team works with school districts to go through the improvement science cycle to understand what the data is telling them, what challenges they are facing, and identify solutions they can use to improve student achievement. They incorporate those identified goals, strategies, and actions in their Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). The Local Control and Accountability Plan is what the district uses to assign the financial resources to the planned strategies.
Our day-to-day work includes:
- Organizing and facilitating professional learning opportunities
- Providing financial oversight for school districts
- Supporting teachers and administrators as they obtain their credentials
- Supporting school districts with their Local Control and Accountability Plans
- Processing paychecks for school employees throughout the county
- Providing internet connectivity to school districts
- Coordinating countywide student safety and emergency preparation programs
- Educating our youngest learners through our Early Learning Program
- Coordinating and providing services for Migrant, Foster, and Homeless children and youth
- Providing direct instruction to Special Education students and Alternative Education students
- Providing support for schools through the pandemic, including procuring Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), vaccination clinics, and providing ongoing communications to keep school leaders informed about changes coming down from the state level
We also collaborate with school, industry, and community leaders to address county-wide educational issues. Sometimes these issues are not directly academic per se, but affect students’ educational experience, such as homelessness or foster youth programs. While foster youth programs are managed through social services, it affects education if a student is constantly moving from family-to-family and school-to-school. In these cases, we are at the table. We participate in developing solutions so that all of the students—whether they are foster, homeless, or migrant students—have smooth transitions, have access to quality education programs, and have their needs met.
In 2020, our team engaged in a strategic planning process that led to the development of six strategic priorities. The strategic priorities are overlapping and interrelated and will drive our work over the next five years. Our strategic priorities are:
- Successful Students: All students will receive a high-quality education to ensure success in college, career, and life.
- Supported and Prepared Educators: All educators will be provided the resources, professional development, and environments to learn and grow in their craft.
- Healthy and Safe Schools: All schools will promote the physical and mental health of their students by creating inclusive and respectful learning environments.
- Informed and Engaged Stakeholders: Community members will be informed about education in Monterey County and engaged in building countywide community support for education.
- Fiscally Solvent, Innovative and Efficient Systems: MCOE policies and systems will proactively and creatively align resources to support dynamic teaching and learning while remaining fiscally solvent.
- Engaged and Thriving Workforce: MCOE will promote and support an engaged, thriving, and highly skilled education workforce and promote employment within public education throughout the community.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Could you elaborate on the process of school and education program evaluation at the school, district, and county levels? How is student performance measured, and how is this data used to improve education programs and opportunities for students? How do these evaluations and assessments help to ensure equality and equity with regards to students’ experiences and learning outcomes in the classroom?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] County, district, and school program evaluations are rooted in the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) at the district level, and the School Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA) at the school level, both of which support equitable student outcomes through the measurement of state priority areas. The eight state priority areas and metrics are embedded in LCAPs and SPSAs, to measure both the qualitative and quantitative health of a district and school. These priority areas include the basic conditions of learning, school culture and climate, student and parental involvement and engagement, as well as student achievement in the content areas.
Student performance is measured in many ways, and each school and district uses a variety of qualitative and quantitative tools to determine the needs of staff and students within their school communities. All schools in California are monitored by the California School Dashboard, and this tool provides parents and educators with meaningful information on school and district progress, so they can participate in decisions that improve student learning. The Dashboard also includes a student group report that allows the educational community to make equitable decisions and align additional resources where they are needed, to improve student outcomes.
Every year, a district revisits their LCAP and makes adjustments as needed. They review their goals and identify strategies to achieve these goals in addition to gathering stakeholders together to share data and to get feedback. They ask community partners about what changes the district should be making or new areas that they need to focus on. Then they revise their LCAP to reflect the changes that they need to make.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What’s the duration of the improvement science and improvement cycle? What is the lifecycle of that? And is there an example of one of those experiments, like data-informed experiments that you implemented in the classroom and saw it through that cycle?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] It is easiest to explain the concept of improvement science and the process of an improvement cycle by using an example. Let’s say we are trying to improve our elementary school reading intervention program’s rating scores. The school district would first review the results of the state’s assessments. Specific students get identified as needing improvement in reading. The district would then have a local assessment for these students to identify what areas the students are struggling with, such as blending or segmenting words, or having a limited vocabulary. The classroom identifies what the student’s specific challenges are, such as letter recognition or phonics. Then the students would be put in an intervention program where the teachers specifically tie the teaching to the learning needs of the student. This can take anywhere from days to weeks to maybe months. It just depends on how long it takes for that student to master that particular skillset.
Once the student has indicated they have mastered the needed skillset, teachers reassess them to make sure they did in fact master the skillset so they can move onto the next thing they may need to work on. We want to be flexible with the timing of when we reassess the student. For example, let’s say a student is struggling with letter recognition and sounds, then with our intervention program that student is able to master these skills within a week. You don’t want to keep them in the same intervention program working on a skill that they clearly feel comfortable with. You want to reassess them as soon as you think that they have mastered letter recognition.
On the other hand, some of other areas might take students three to six weeks of instruction. Typically at least every six weeks, you are assessing your students to make sure that they are mastering the skillsets they need in order to continue progressing. Otherwise, you will never cover all of the curriculum within the year because we have way more standards we need to teach than the time we have to teach them.
The students exit the intervention program once they have mastered the skillset, but the students who have not yet mastered it would stay in the intervention program until they reach mastery. Thus, the whole cycle of constantly coming back and assessing, checking, and tweaking the program as needed to make sure that the students are getting to mastery is the key piece to the improvement cycle.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Within Monterey County, 80.5% of students are Hispanic/Latino, 75.1% are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 34.3% are English Language Learners. How do these county student demographics, which are much higher than the state average, impact the programs and policies MCOE develops and implements to support its student population, as well as its teachers?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] Monterey County is a diverse and unique county–in some areas of the county we have students coming from very high socioeconomic backgrounds and in other areas of the county we have large numbers of students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and learning a second language.
We are a very interesting county because we are spread far and wide. The 24 school districts in our county go from the north area, which includes Prunedale, to the central area of Salinas that has multiple school districts. Then we have the Peninsula schools, which go all the way to Big Sur, as well as Salinas and the South County corridor of schools. Due to our county’s geography, we have a diverse mix of students, families, and student needs. On the Peninsula, you have more affluent families in Carmel, Pacific Grove, and Monterey. The Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) includes Monterey and also covers Seaside and Marina, which are not quite as affluent but still more affluent than some of our most southern districts, where many of our students are coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
When you look at our demographic data, the majority of our English as a second language learners and Latinx students are concentrated in Prunedale, Salinas, South County, Seaside, and Marina, while Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel tend to be predominantly white and have a higher socioeconomic status. It makes for a very challenging situation when we have to make sure that we are meeting the needs of all students, families, school districts, and charter schools. We provide our teachers with professional development services that will empower them to meet the unique needs of each and every district as they differ based on size, rural vs. urban, and demographics.
Due to the diversity in our county, we spend a lot of time working with our education partners to customize plans for each learning community. The Monterey County Office of Education (MCOE) does not provide staffing for the programs and services within the school districts, but we do have departments within our organization that work collaboratively with each of the schools and districts to assist in creating high quality programs for all students. Our Educational Services Division supports curriculum and instruction development through ongoing professional learning workshops, leadership development, and coaching.
We facilitate and support continuous improvement, in alignment with state accountability measures. Educators across the county analyze student performance data and community needs in order to create personalized support plans that address the needs of all student groups. A priority for schools and districts includes creating equitable supports that meet the unique needs of all students and learning communities. Through these services we are able to expand support for underserved students and communities.
One of our major focus areas is individual trainings and professional development for teachers and administrators so they can meet the unique needs of their specific district. We have two induction programs for teachers and administrators to support them. After teachers finish their preservice work and obtain their teaching credentials, they participate in an induction program while they are teaching. Administrators also participate in the induction program to obtain their administrative credential. In addition, we provide ongoing training to support our districts in understanding the new requirements for the LCAPS if templates or expectations change.
We host several support trainings in the areas focused on the LCAPS. Our trainings cover multiple topics, including how to best meet the needs of second language learners, incorporate equity, access and inclusion, and adopt a universal design for learning. We even have safety trainings like procedures for dealing with an active shooter situation.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Monterey County’s Office of Education’s (MCOE) core values are Accountability, Collaboration, Innovation, Diversity, and Equity. How have you and your team upheld these values through your management of all schools within Monterey County, including not only their fiscal and budgetary needs, but also teacher professional development, credentialing, recruitment, and support services? Furthermore, how does MCOE serve as liaison to state and federal governments, and how much of your work involves implementing, evaluating, and improving education policy at the local level?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] The mission of the Monterey County Office of Education is to provide leadership, support, and service excellence needed to prepare the diverse students of Monterey County for success.
Our vision is that every student’s educational experience will prepare them for success as a productive and contributing member of our global society. In order to accomplish this, we focus on our core values of Accountability, Collaboration, Innovation, Diversity, and Equity. We are accountable in all we do, always operating in a transparent manner, building and upholding the public’s trust.
We promote a collaborative culture that empowers organizational synergies and strong partnerships. We are committed to leadership that cultivates innovative ideas that result in effective systems and increased capacity. We value and promote diversity, including different perspectives, cultures, and experiences, to better serve our communities. We foster a culture of equity to provide opportunities for everyone to perform at their highest levels of achievement.
Throughout my career as a school district leader and then here at MCOE, first as Deputy Superintendent and now as Monterey County Superintendent of Schools, I have seen the needs of the school districts evolve. School districts have had to do much without sufficient funding for many years. It was really tough during the last recession when schools had to make huge budget reductions that literally caused the release of key positions such as counselors, librarians, paraprofessionals, and art, music and physical education teachers. After recovering from the recession, school districts struggled to find qualified teacher candidates because the teacher preparation pipeline was greatly reduced, and thus we have been experiencing a teacher shortage. Since high-quality, well-trained teachers are key to student success, this shortage has presented a real challenge.
While school districts want more time to focus on improving teaching methods, curriculum, and assessment systems, there is less time for this when leaders have to focus on teacher recruitment, training, and retention. In order to support our educators with improving teaching methods, curriculum, and assessment, our county office of education provides ongoing professional development for educators and educational leaders. Each year we assess the needs of educators and then design, coordinate, and implement a variety of professional development opportunities.
The good news is that this year we have seen substantial investments in education, which has really helped provide additional support and resources to schools. This was critical, especially during the pandemic when educators had to shift, literally overnight, to online learning.
I regularly speak with legislators to advocate for increased and stable funding so that our schools can count on having the ongoing resources needed to meet the needs of their students. Our county office team does everything we can, and we work with other partner agencies to address the teacher shortage, which now is more like a workforce shortage as we are experiencing shortages of school administrators, para educators, bus drivers, etc. It is important for the state level leaders to know what is happening at the district, school, and classroom levels.
The advice I have for other educational leaders facing similar challenges is to keep their eye on the goal of improving outcomes for the students we serve. The more we strive to improve our systems, services and support for education, the better our schools will be, which will result in our students obtaining a high quality education that will set them up for success in life. For me, it’s all about the students and families we serve. I always ask policymakers to think about how every decision they make will affect the kids. That’s the most important question we should ask ourselves.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What type of student programs do you coordinate or offer in your county?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] We coordinate many county-wide student motivation programs in addition to providing direct student programs. For example, we educate our youngest learners through the Early Learning Program. We call it the Early Learning Program because it is a combination of preschool funding and Head Start funding. We blend those two funds to provide preschool opportunities for families in need. We also coordinate and provide services for migrant students. In some cases, we provide support directly to migrant students and in other cases, we coordinate the program or the funding that we allocate to the districts to support their own migrant students directly.
We also coordinate several direct student programs, such as the county’s foster youth program and the McKinney-Vento Program for homeless children and youth. Furthermore, we provide direct instruction to special education students and alternative education students. The special education students we serve have severe health needs or other severe disabilities that qualify them for moderate to severe special education services. We provide these services because many school districts only have a couple of students with severe needs, and it would not be cost-effective to have a full-time teacher and all the support services that are needed for a couple of students. Instead, school districts can send their moderate to severe special education students to our program. We then have a class of 10 to 12 students, which is much more cost efficient and effective.
For alternative education, we serve students who are participating in court and community programs. Our juvenile hall educational program is called Wellington Smith, and we also provide educational programming to youth in the Youth Center, which is also an incarceration facility. Our community schools serve students who have been expelled from their school of residence, as well as students who prefer to come to our alternative education program because they feel they can do better in an alternative learning environment. Not every student thrives in the comprehensive school setting as one size does not fit all. Thus, our community school programs are unique, and sometimes students choose to come to our alternative education programs because they like the theme or the focus of that program.
An example of one of our community school programs with a unique focus is our partnership with the Bob Hoover Academy, which is a non-profit that raises funds to provide flight lessons for our students. This program serves alternative education students in grades nine through 12. The teachers teach the high school curriculum so that students can earn their high school diploma and graduate. Students also get the chance to take lessons in aviation and air craft maintenance. I am incredibly proud of this program, and it has had great success.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] How did the COVID-19 pandemic and required quarantines of 2020 affect education programming within Monterey County? In addition, what kinds of education inequalities and inequities did the pandemic expose? In what ways did MCOE employ innovation and collaboration to ensure students from diverse backgrounds received quality and equitable education during those challenging times? How do you feel the pandemic has permanently altered the way in which public education is delivered?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] We provide the internet connectivity to many of the school districts in the county. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Monterey County Office of Education formed a Digital Divide Task Force to address increased technology needs placed upon students in order to implement and continue distance learning. The mission of the Task Force was to ensure every student in Monterey County had the ability to participate in high quality online distance learning by providing access to the devices and connectivity needed for success.
Through continuous surveys, MCOE determined there were thousands of students across school districts that did not have access to appropriate devices or an adequate connection to the internet. In many cases it was both. Districts had already deployed all resources available to place devices in the hands of the students, but it was not enough to close the gap.
As we began the 2020-21 school year, there were still over 8,500 students from Monterey County schools and districts who did not have access to a device in the home and over 11,000 students who did not have connectivity to internet in the home. One of the Digital Divide Task Force’s committees was focused on fundraising, and then identifying who would get the funding. The efforts to close the digital divide amounted to almost three ($3) million. MCOE purchased and provided thousands of devices to the school districts to check out to their students. These devices are now in the school districts’ inventories. While locally raised funding and the funding that schools received have allowed us to meet the device needs, there is still an ongoing challenge to have stable, sufficient, and affordable internet connectivity for all students and families in the long-term.
We also provided Wi-Fis that can help students with internet connectivity. In some areas where those didn’t work, we partnered with MST, which is our local county bus system, because they have Wi-Fi. They turned the Wi-Fi outward, and went out to areas all over the County. San Lucas was one of the locations where they parked in the community center’s parking lot, and then parents and students could pull their car up, open a laptop, and use Wi-Fi that way.
Almost all schools also share their Wi-Fi, which is usually secured and only used when in a school building. Most schools turned it outwards so that if parents parked in the school parking lots, they could access Wi-Fi. We did a lot of creative, innovative things here in Monterey County in order to help our students gain access to the learning technologies and connectivity they needed.
Everyone knew that the digital divide was real but until students and families had to rely on having a device and access to the internet in order to participate in their educational program or work from home, there was not a huge effort to close the gap. While there is much more work to be done in this area, it is now a major focus at the local, state, and federal level.
I think the major investment in technology and internet connectivity will change how education is delivered. While many students did not do well in the virtual setting, many students did thrive. We are back to mostly in person learning, which is great because there are so many benefits to learning in person, especially with regards to supporting the social and emotional needs of our students. However, I don’t think we should throw out the baby with bathwater because we did learn that many students do thrive in the online learning environment. Technology is a great tool that the working world depends upon, so it is important for students to know how to use the tools, be safe in the online environment, and to be good digital citizens.
In addition to our efforts to get our students access to technology and internet, MCOE did amazing work in supplying schools with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, hand sanitizer, drapes, and digital thermometers. We invited districts to go through us to make those purchases because bulk pricing is much less expensive, which helped districts save money. We also reached out to various entities who were interested in providing free PPE to support the schools. Then as the districts identified their needs, we distributed the PPE to them.
Moreover, our county doesn’t have a multi-agency serving healthcare system, like Kaiser or Dignity Health, so we were getting fewer vaccines than the counties around us. We had to do a ton of advocacy to get vaccines to our county. Then we had to make sure that the educator workforce was getting vaccinated as quickly as possible in addition to prioritizing who gets vaccinated in those early stages of the pandemic. We reached out to every educational institution in our county from Early Care in Education all the way up to our university system. We created a spreadsheet with information on all the entities and the number of employees they had as well as how many of those employees wanted to get a vaccine or not.
We worked with the local hospitals to set up vaccine clinics on school sites and at the county office. Every day we were emailing and calling to check how many more people need to be vaccinated. We partnered with VNA, pharmacies, and hospitals and other healthcare systems in order to get everybody who wanted to be vaccinated a vaccination appointment. This is how our work shifted in the pandemic. I never would have thought that I would be a vaccine clinic coordinator. You do whatever it takes to make sure that schools have what they need to be healthy and safe, and to keep their students and employees safe.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What adaptations did the MCOE implement to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic? How did MCOE support social economically-disadvantaged students as they coped with online learning especially in a context where they might not have access to a computer or Internet connection? What are some opportunities that the pandemic provided, or improvements that MCOE implemented that will last beyond the pandemic and quarantine if there are examples of that that you can mention too?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] Timely communication is critical, especially when you are in emergency situations. When the pandemic hit, I realized that I had to get messages out to the educational leaders in our county very quickly. However, email was not the most effective way to do it because everybody was trying to send a million emails about everything. Educational leaders probably get 30 to 40 emails a day from vendors trying to sell them something, and they are getting emails from parents with their concerns. They are also getting emails from community members, board members, and fellow faculty members. Everyone had a backlog of emails.
Prior to the pandemic, my son had taught me about WhatsApp because he was traveling abroad. I didn’t realize at the time but WhatsApp is amazing because it doesn’t limit the number of people in your communication thread. If I wanted to send a text message out to district leaders, I could only include six to eight people at a time. WhatsApp let me put all 24 school district leaders and eight charter school leaders in one WhatsApp group. As soon as I got hot off-the-press information that I needed to immediately share, I put it in the WhatsApp and hit send. They could quickly send back any questions.
We still use WhatsApp now, but I love that it has now evolved. We currently don’t have so many emergency situations that require information to be sent quickly. Now a leader who has a question that they need help with can use our WhatsApp group chat to ask each other for advice. For example, a district leader may ask, “How are you handling masking at outdoor sports activities?” Other district leaders will reply, “We are following just the exact guidance where we aren’t requiring masking because it is outdoors.” Another district leader will say: “We’re requiring everyone to wear a mask even at outdoor events because we feel it’s safer.”
Thus, the leaders will share the problems that they are struggling with in that chat, and then everyone gets to share how they are handling it. They can talk to each other and collaborate in a timely manner rather than waiting for an email response that might come in two weeks.
Academic Interview Questions
[The following questions are academic in focus and designed for students who are considering a Doctor of Education degree.]
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What key insights and skills did you gain during your enrollment in your Ed.D.? What was the topic of your dissertation, and did your research on this topic inform your future career goals and achievements? For current Ed.D. students who are considering their dissertation topic or working on their dissertation, what advice do you have for them in terms of getting the most out of this intensive research experience?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] The key insight that I gained from participating in an Ed.D. program is how fun it is to conduct research. The topic of my dissertation was The Influence of Turnaround Model Elements At A Rural Elementary School. I was extremely interested in how to turn around low performing schools, and there was a grant opportunity that required a multitude of elements to be implemented, and I really wanted to know which of the elements had the greatest impact on student achievement.
For background, I was District Superintendent in the Soledad Unified School District when I started my doctorate program. Prior to that, I was a school principal at Rose Ferrero Elementary School. When I was at Rose Ferrero Elementary School, it was a new school that I had the privilege of opening. It was very exciting because when you open a brand new school, everybody wants to be there. I loved it.
I left the school to go to the district level to be a Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and eventually I became the Associate Superintendent of Educational Services. After that I became the District Superintendent. I had a lot of interest in all of the schools, but at the time I was in my doctorate program, the state was offering a grant program that would provide funding to implement one of four models to improve student achievement.
The options were interesting. One of them was to implement a turnaround model school. One of the major requirements of that model was that you would be required to change 50 percent of the instructional staff and the school leader. Another model was just to close the school, and have the students go somewhere else. The idea was that students would leave the low-performing school to go to a higher performing school in your district. Another model was to change the school into a charter school.
As the District Superintendent, I worked together with our union partners, our school leaders, and their staff members to select which model to implement. We identified that the turnaround model was the best model for us to implement. The turnaround model is tough to implement because you are changing 50 percent of the staff and the school leader. We were also required to extend the school day and school year. We identified that Rose Ferrero Elementary School, my prior school, was probably the best school to move forward with it.
I was in my doctorate program and I wanted to know whether the turnaround model would result in improved student achievement or not. We wrote the grant and received funding for three years to implement the model. We had great improvement over that three-year period. My research spoke to determine whether we needed to have all of the model’s elements to get improved results or if there were specific elements that led to the greatest improvement. The research was quantitative and qualitative because I had to look at actual student results, and then I had to qualitatively survey and interview the teachers to see which elements they thought achieved those results.
I did not pick this topic just because I had to pick a topic. I picked a topic that I really wanted to research because it would be of great value to our district, not just to me personally. If I knew what worked, then we could select those elements and implement them in other schools in our district so that we could get improvements.
We learned so much from implementing the turnaround model and my research on it. We took the elements that were identified to be effective and implemented the ones we could replicate without additional funding in other schools in the district. The tough thing is that you need money to be able to implement all of these strategies. Right after that grant, we went into a recession, which was very challenging because we didn’t have all the resources to continue to implement the elements long-term.
A valuable lesson from going through a doctorate program is learning how to conduct research. We are always telling our educators that everything should be based on data analysis, research, and best practices. We only know what best practices are if we know what the research says. However, there isn’t research that tells you best practices for all of the challenges that schools might face. Thus, you can apply the strategies and skills that you learned while doing your own dissertation research to new areas. This is what is really most exciting to me.
I also really enjoyed my master’s program. When I was in my master’s program, we learned Action Research. At that time, I was looking at the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Program and how to increase participation. Our GATE Program was getting the results that we wanted for our students, but we needed to increase participation. Then in my doctorate program, learning what worked and didn’t with the turnaround model gave us additional insight. I recommend to all educators, whether they want to be an educator or an educational leader, to participate in a doctoral program.
I think the best thing about participating in a doctoral program is learning how to look at a problem, review the appropriate data, and how to do the research to discover the best approaches to solve problems. You learn how important it is to use data for decision making, how to properly conduct research, and how to analyze the results you are getting so that you are drawing appropriate conclusions. This is really critical in making decisions, whether you are making decisions for a whole district or about your own instruction in your own classroom. These are helpful skills both in your profession and even in life.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What challenges do you see new education leaders facing in today’s public and private education landscape, and how do you advise them to best prepare for challenges? What about some other ways in which education leaders can meet like the current moment? I know that there’s been a lot of media coverage and a lot of efforts now to address diversity, inclusion, equality, and equity. So that’s one piece that I would love to hear your insight on, but any other like on the forefront challenges that you see?
[Dr. Deneen Guss] Educational leaders are now in this whole new world. Before we used to always be worried and concerned about resources, professional development, and curriculum adoption. We still worry about those things. We still want to make sure we are selecting the right materials, that we are teaching the standards, that our students are at grade level mastery, and that we are challenging our students. We are still focused on how to meet the needs of every single student in our class.
However, we are now facing newer challenges, such as the digital divide and how to enable the use of technology for teaching and learning. Our new challenge is determining how to utilize technology to its fullest, but at the same time do it skillfully so that students see technology as a tool and not as the teacher.
I don’t think technology will ever replace a teacher. How do you make sure that we don’t just put a computer in front of kids and ask kids to sit using the computer for hours at a time to try to learn? As a teacher, we are working with our students and want to use technology in a dynamic way so that our kids see it as a great tool, but it isn’t the be all, end all.
I wouldn’t want to see students just sitting at a computer all day long in a computer lab. They could do that at home. I want to see teachers utilizing technology to expand student learning in ways that you couldn’t if you didn’t have these devices. We should utilize technology as part of our teaching and learning, like bringing in virtual field trips. For example, I might not be able to afford to take my kids to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I can virtually show them everything that the aquarium has to offer.
We can make technology a critical tool in my teaching, especially when you are working with English language learners. If they don’t have a good handle on the vocabulary, it doesn’t help for a teacher to talk at the students and use words that the kids don’t know. However, if I am a teacher who is trying to teach a particular concept, I can have a picture on the screen right behind me to show students what I’m talking about. This is the best way for a second language learner to learn new vocabulary and ensure that they are understanding the content that you are providing.
I have walked into classrooms where the kids are on the computer the whole time. I want to see kids engaged in hands-on activities. I have also walked into many classrooms where the teacher is describing the content that they want the student to learn, but they assign them a hands-on project for the students to work on. They have teams of kids collaborate. They are on the computer trying to find the information they need. We are in this great area of opportunity right now where all of our students have so much more access to devices and the internet for information.
My hope and dream would be that our students utilize the tools in the right way–accessing the content and being able to create these amazing projects because the tools are there for them rather than spend their time on technology to cyber bully. We can teach digital literacy and also digital citizenship.
Another challenge is that school leaders are facing a lot of pushback from individuals about specific things that are coming down the pipeline from the state level. For example, the law changed to require ethnic studies as a graduation requirement—a semester course in ethnic studies for high school students. There are some individuals who are concerned about ethnic studies, so schools are receiving some pushback. I think it is really important right now for educational leaders and decision makers to understand what ethnic studies is and what it is not. What is the purpose behind this legislation? How do we appropriately develop and implement these courses to truly meet the needs of our students?
I think education leaders have to make sure they are knowledgeable about changes in legislation. They will need to know how to navigate the implementation of new legislation and how to have respectful and simple discourse with individuals when there is disagreement about what should or should not be taught in our public schools. Everyone is going to come to the table with their own perspectives, and they all have a right to their own perspectives on the various topics. It is critical that when we are debating these issues that the discourse is civil and respectful because we, as adults, model behavior for our students. We want our students to be good citizens, to be kind, and to have empathy, so the adults have to model it as well. Leaders need the skills to facilitate these difficult discussions.
Another issue is funding. Schools have been underfunded for years, and now suddenly we are getting a huge influx of funding. How do we make sure that we are really using those funds in the wisest way? How do we make sure that the funding is being spent on the true needs that will lead to improved outcomes for our young people? It is hard because the funding comes and there is a short deadline for when the funds have to be spent. You have to know what the funds can support–what are allowable uses for those funds so that you most appropriately match the funds to the needs of the district and meet the spending deadlines.
Additionally, we are constantly having to evolve our health and safety protocols to match what is happening on the ground in our classrooms. How do we make sure that we are following all the state mandates and communicating concerns about any mandates to our state level leaders who always know exactly what is happening with the folks with the boots on the ground? As things change at the local level, it requires ongoing communication with state level leaders who make those important decisions because we have to understand how those decisions impact us.
For example, the vaccine mandate will come into play when the vaccines have full FDA approval. However, we are hearing that there will be some exceptions for religious, personal, or medical reasons. If the legislature decides they want to only allow medical exemptions and not personal or religious exemptions, then that decision will have an impact on schools. We are hearing some parents say that they will pull their child out of school and homeschool instead. This could possibly affect enrollment. We are already seeing enrollment issues in California. Parents may change their mind once the mandate comes into play, creating additional unknowns for school leaders.
School leaders have to do a better job of communicating what we are hearing from our parents to state level officials who make these important decisions, so we can navigate the effects of those mandates. Parents have very differing opinions in what they want. As school leaders, we have the mandates from the state level, and we have to follow the law. We don’t want to teach kids to break the law, so we don’t break the law. It is very challenging to navigate various perspectives and desires of all the various stakeholders we serve. Whether a vaccine is offered, or whether it’s mandated, people feel very differently about it.
These are some examples of the things that educators and school leaders never thought they would be dealing with. I never thought I would be hosting vaccine townhalls to address the benefits and the facts about the vaccines or hosting vaccine clinics right here in our county office. We might not be on the cruise we signed up for, but it is the cruise we are on. What is exciting about being a leader is knowing that you are going to do the very best you can to navigate the constantly changing landscape of what is happening in our schools, due to the pandemic.
We make the very best decisions you can based on the information that you have at any given moment. We do everything we can to try to ensure the success for the students and the families we serve, which is our end goal. As school leaders, we have to be flexible, and we have to take each challenge as it comes.
I think school leaders are feeling absolutely exhausted. They haven’t had a break since the pandemic started. However, I also think that if you look at those challenges as opportunities to grow and to learn, then we are in it for the long haul and will continue to be optimistic, which is what we want our students and families to be as well. Be optimistic and hopeful that we are going to get through this pandemic and will have learned a great deal and will be stronger leaders because of it.
Hopefully at the end of it, we will have learned so much about what really worked and what didn’t work. We can change our schools in ways where we can improve instruction because we now have new sets of tools that we didn’t have before as well as new insight into what works and what doesn’t work. This is the essence of MCOE’s mission and work, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.
Thank you, Dr. Guss, for your excellent insight into your role as Monterey County Superintendent of Schools, and your commitment to teacher support, student success, and community engagement for all the school districts of Monterey County!