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Monday profile: Kirsten Vital

Submitted by on 1, January 26, 2009 – 10:00 amNo Comment

Alameda started the new year with a new school superintendent, Kirsten Vital. Vital did time in Los Angeles and, most recently, as the Oakland Unified School District’s community accountability chief. In those districts, she said, she often focused on the harsh realities of her charges’ urban life. Here, she’ll deal with an entirely different set of challenges. Here’s what she told us last in an interview last week.

Why did you decide to come to Alameda? I did a lot of research, looking at the data in the schools, what was happening with the instructional program and the success of the schools, and some of what Alameda is wrestling with in trying to close the achievement gap between different kinds of students. And I felt that the challenges and strengths that Alameda has are a good fit for my skills. I would also say I felt very connected to the former board and the new board. I felt like the beliefs, vision and values of the district were a really good fit for me.

How is a suburban district like ours different from the urban districts where you’ve worked? I would say the biggest difference is around the everyday conditions. As an associate superintendent in an urban district, I may get three or four safety calls a day in which I’m dealing with a situation, whether it be some issue of violence happening in the community to a young person arrested. A lockdown. I feel that Alameda is a very safe community, where I feel like my focus is very much on the things I’ve described, and not focusing on those kinds of realities that happen in an urban area. And I feel like with 10,000 students, I can really wrap my arms around the number of schools and teachers. I can personalize getting to know many of the constituents and stakeholders, which is very different from working in a very large urban district.

What do you think are our district’s strengths and challenges? The strengths: There’s really high-performing schools, with really high levels of instructional program and high levels of parent and community involvement. There are really thoughtful teachers and leaders in the schools. The biggest challenge is the budget, quite frankly. It’s a challenge across the state of California, but a challenge in Alameda that I think as an entire community we’re going to have to solve together, and think about, what does it cost to educate a young person in Alameda, and how do you pay for it? What is our role working together to educate in Sacramento, and what is our role locally to raise funds? My work is to build a coalition locally.

Is there a local funding fix? Thank goodness for Measure H, because I think it’s really supporting Alameda through the next few years. It’s given us space to have a hard conversation in Alameda as far as, how are we going to locally solve this. Does that mean, long-term, looking at local funding. And I think that depends on how the community is looking at this. San Francisco just passed a long-term parcel tax, and they did that collaboratively. I have a lot of faith in the new administration in Washington and I would like to see support come federally as well for the requirements of No Child Left Behind, and the mandates of special education.

Are there efforts to reach out to the parties suing over Measure H? What I can say is, I am going to reach out to community leaders, business leaders, the Chamber, Rotary. Because I think to really educate a young person well, it’s going to take us all. And that means all of us working together on, this is what we want Alameda to look like, this is what we want education to look like. I’m in the process of doing a listening campaign, (to ask) what is it that I need to focus on. I will continue over the next 60 days to really listen and learn. My hope is that there is a way to come together.

Will we face school closures? One thing that I’ll be presenting to the board is reviving the K-12 restructuring task forces, and really bringing a group of folks together to think about a strategic plan for the district. The former strategic plan actually ended in June of 2008. My conversation about what does it cost to educate a child in Alameda today is part of that planning process. I really hope that will come out of a public strategic planning process, and direction from the Board of Education.

Is there a way forward on charter schools? I think there’s a collaborative relationship districts can have with charters. I felt that I had that experience in Oakland with many of the charters I worked with. I really believe in quality education for young people, so it’s not about being for or against charters. I think it’s more about how we create a quality public education for young people. I think there are ways we can collaborate on services, where a charter can buy services from the district.

What are your other priorities? I think some other pieces are being involved and visible in the schools and out in the community. I’m going to continue that work as we move forward, really supporting leaders at school sites so they can support moving achievement. I really want to get to know the community, and (I’ll be) looking at ways to communicate more broadly with the constituents in Alameda. There’s so much good going on in this district, and I don’t think everybody knows what’s really happening. I’m a new superintendent and I have a new board, so I want to spend time really building that relationship and working with my new board very closely.

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