A Conversation With CSBA President Susan Henry on education leadership & challenges in 2017
California Schools magazine talks with CSBA President Susan Henry about her background and what led her to become engaged with public education.
A registered nurse and an artist that went back to college at age 50, her life has centered on education, her family and community. The commitment and leadership she has shown for all of her endeavors is apparent in highlights from her interview. California Schools is excited for the upcoming year ahead with Henry at the helm, meeting the challenges of California public education.
CS: Susan, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
SH: I have lived in Orange County, California since 1962 when my parents emigrated from England. For six months, we lived in a trailer on my great uncle Frank’s small property in Elsinore. As a five-year old I thought we had moved to the Wild West. We settled in Santa Ana, eventually moving to Orange where I graduated from Villa Park High School. I worked in the travel industry a few years and attended Santa Ana College, receiving a nursing degree and earning my RN in 1982. During that time, in 1979, I met and married my husband, Kim, and we moved to Huntington Beach. We started a family and my husband started an engineering firm; My son Brian was born Christmas of 1982, Sara came during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, and Keith arrived on a memorable Memorial Day weekend in 1987. Outgrowing our small house, we moved inland to Fountain Valley where Brian promptly began kindergarten.
Taking the advice of a friend, who was a PTA president in Connecticut, when the kids started school, I went with them. That was the beginning of my volunteer years in public education. I started as a classroom volunteer and never looked back; chaperone, part-time nurse, PTA president in elementary school, PTA president in middle school, fundraising chair, high school booster groups, school site council — elementary, middle and high school, grad night, bingo board and my last volunteer job at the high school was to resurrect a foundation that had lapsed. We reorganized and created an academic booster group by turning the Baron Boosters into the Fountain Valley High School Foundation. One by one, the kids went off to college and the year after my youngest went, I went back to college. With my general education requirements covered under my previous nursing degree it still took three years, going full-time, to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from California State University, Long Beach. I majored in “Studio Art with an emphasis on 3 Dimensional Design — Fiber,” and graduated cum laude. Going back to college at age 50 gives you a whole new perspective on being a board member. I learned as much from being around students as I did in my classes. So in 2009, I graduated again and walked with my daughter at the CSULB graduation.
CS: You’ve been a board member for the last 16 years. When and why did you decide to become an elected school board member?
SH: As a result of being the president of the high school foundation where my children attended, I had become active at the district level on many committees. One in particular was of significant interest to me and I had been asked to serve as a parent representative, but also because of my nursing background. There had been a contentious textbook selection process for the adoption of a health class textbook. It had wound up in the boardroom and in the newspapers and had been sent back with orders to form a new committee and look for a new book. I served on the second committee and got quite an education on the politics of education policy. I witnessed firsthand the challenges and pressures outside groups can exert on districts. We had to settle for a textbook that, in my opinion, was second rate and a disservice to our students. I suppose that would be when I decided to run for school board. The ‘why’ relates to being the member of an extended family that sees education and school board service as a way of life. Among them, two brothers-in-law in Maine and Rhode Island respectively, a niece in Vermont, and my father-in-law were or are currently board members, five sisters-in-law and my mother-inlaw were or are teachers and my daughter is a college professor teaching geology.
CS: Why did you decide in 2006 to be part of CSBA’s delegate assembly?
SH: At the time, I was in the middle of my second term on the board. I felt that after having been active with the Orange County School Boards Association, through many roles including president, that it was time to move on to the state level. So much of what I had experienced to that point at the local level was directly affected by what happened at the state level and I wanted to have an impact on that in whatever way I could. I have always been interested in politics and although it is somewhat a love/hate relationship, I wanted to be more involved.
CS: How is being elected as a board member today, different from being elected in 2000?
SH: When I was elected in 2000 the focus was on state standards and emerging technology. Since that time we have evolved through the acknowledgement of an achievement gap, highlighted by No Child Left Behind, notwithstanding all of its problems, to a new iteration in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Here in California, we have not only acknowledged an achievement gap but an equity gap which is being addressed through LCFF and LCAP. One of the biggest differences since 2000 is the way schools are funded. Now more than ever, California school boards are tasked with even more responsibility at the local level by planning, implementing, and evaluating the Local Control Funding Formula.
Things have certainly changed since 2000 with more emphasis moving from identifying standards to accountability, assessment and closing gaps. We have also evolved the use of technology for technology’s sake to data driven decisions that affect policy decisions, budget allocations, and detailed plans for improvement.
CS: What is your vision for public education in California?
SH: My vision for public education in California is to provide the children entrusted to our care a safe, supportive, effective environment in which to learn and grow. My vision includes an educated, empowered organization of school board members that ensure there are no obstacles to that goal. That we also work respectfully and collaboratively with the legislature to make education in California the state’s highest priority.
CS: Describe one challenge of being a school board member that people might underrate or overlook?
SH: I think one challenge that people might overlook or not understand is the incredible amount of preparation that goes into being a successful school board member. The amount of information that is presented, assessed, digested, analyzed, compared or simply read is amazing. As a board member you are reading and analyzing budgets and spreadsheets, business contracts and legal documents. I think people assume we go to a few meetings a month and that’s it. That is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a challenge to stay on top of the information tsunami that is the norm these days, in a data-driven environment.
CS: What piece of advice would you give to aspiring school board members?
SH: I would advise aspiring school board members to take advantage of the learning opportunities that CSBA has to offer. Attending CSBA’s Annual Education Conference and Trade Show is an excellent way to get acquainted with what CSBA has to offer. Between excellent keynote speakers and topical workshops, it is the best time investment for a new board member. After that, I would encourage them to enroll in the Masters in Governance program for an in-depth look at all the areas of governance that board members need for a greater understanding of their role. The tools that are required to be an effective school board member require time, effort and dedication. The results are a more informed, better prepared governance team member, equipped to lead their district and community.
CS: What are your three proudest moments as a board member?
SH: One of my proudest moments happens every year at graduation. I was fortunate to be able to give each of my three children their diplomas so I know, first hand, how the families of our district feel on graduation day. Unfortunately, every June there are a hand full of students who just miss graduating by one class, either by grades or absences. As a result, the HBUHSD recently instituted a new program: The Annual Fall District Graduation. This program allows students to finish their graduation requirements over the summer, directly after their senior year, and then in October to walk, in cap and gown, at a districtwide graduation with students from all six of our comprehensive high schools and our two alternative schools. Number two would have to be passing Measure C, which was the $238 million bond measure that I co-chaired in 2004. A tough sell in mostly Republican Orange County, we set out to create a grassroots campaign designed to capture the local pride in a district celebrating the centennial of its flagship high school. These schools had seen little physical plant upgrades in years. Our goal was to create a district which was “pristine and parklike” — focusing on providing updated, clean, safe and welcoming facilities. Number three was the honor of receiving the Marian Bergeson Award from the Orange County School Boards Association in 2015. This award was first presented to Marian Bergeson in 1974 to recognize her excellence in education, remarkable boardsmanship and unyielding drive to better communities. A long time public servant, Marian dedicated her life to education and community activities and held various roles including school board member, CSBA President, State Senator, and Secretary for Child Development and Education.
CS: What do you see as the greatest challenges to consistently high-quality public education in California?
SH: Adequacy continues to be one of the greatest challenges to consistently highquality education in California. CSBA is committed to challenge the state’s lack of providing a constitutionally guaranteed right to an equitable educational opportunity by continuing to fight for “fair funding,” one of the five pillars supporting our Policy Platform. CSBA continues its efforts to educate member districts in sharing accurate information about the state’s investment in our schools and to advocate on behalf of all students.
CS: What are the issues that you want to focus on this year as CSBA’s president?
SH: As CSBA’s President I would like to focus on achieving the goals and priorities that the board identified as critical to the success of the organization. With the creation of a new Mission Statement and a new Vision Statement, CSBA is committed to be the essential voice for public education and strengthen and promote school board governance to ensure a high-quality education for every student in every community. With the creation of the Strategy and Implementation Plans, that have been developed surrounding these priorities, we will support local governing boards of education, mobilize our grassroots advocacy, address adequacy and opportunity gaps, and address our own governance model. This very important work is essential to further the mission and vision of CSBA.
CS: If you weren’t a board member, what would you be doing in your spare time?
SH: I would probably be spending more time on my art. I like to maintain a balance between art and intellect. The strengths and weaknesses of any right-brained activity is the ability to become lost in the moments of creativity, when time stands still. There is a point when a spark of an idea becomes just the beginning of a tangible, visible creation. That is when you know you are on to something and you can’t put it down, only to look up at the clock and discover you’ve been at it for hours. The techniques I use are very labor intensive: weaving, spinning, dyeing, crochet, and needle work. It’s hard to balance that with phone calls, meetings, and all that reading but I make it work!