Call it “parental prescience.”
Two years ago, a parent leader in San Diego introduced Cindy Marten, the principal of Central Elementary School in City Heights, this way: “Meet the next superintendent of San Diego Unified.”
It seemed a more-than-generous welcome, considering that about 850 students attend Central, and 133,000 are enrolled in the district, California’s second-largest. The elevation of an elementary educator directly to such a level—the superintendency in the 19th largest school district nationwide—would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented, in the nation.
Little did Amy Redding, a parent leader attending that Title I Tiger Team meeting, know just how accurate that prediction would be. In early 2013, she would organize a press conference announcing a partnership between a dozen parent groups and Ms. Marten after the principal was appointed by the school board to that very role. The purpose of the partnership is to advance “academic success and educational enrichment for the children of San Diego Unified,” Ms. Redding said at a March 5 news conference.
Ms. Redding, now the chairwoman of the district advisory committee for Title I, expressed unequivocal approval of Ms. Marten’s selection, saying, “I have seen her complete devotion to doing what is in the best interests of the children.”
However, in a phone interview, Ms. Redding echoed the surprise felt by many in San Diego at the school board’s method of making the decision: The new appointment came within 24 hours of current Superintendent Bill Kowba’s retirement announcement. Ms. Marten will begin her new position July 1.
“Since the board had talked about parent involvement, then chose the superintendent behind closed doors, we thought it would make it very difficult for her,” Ms. Redding said. Publicly forging a relationship with 12 parent groups was intended to be “like the first day of school, starting with a clean slate,” she said.
For her part, Ms. Marten has attended parent and community meetings beyond the confines of Central Elementary for years. Parent leaders already know her. And now, so does most of San Diego. Last fall, she starred in the only district-produced commercial urging voters there to support Proposition Z, a $2.8 billion school bond measure on the San Diego school district ballot to make capital improvements like roof repairs and upgrades to fire-safety systems. The electorate approved the measure on Nov. 6 with 61.8 percent of the vote.
The incoming superintendent stresses her commitment to student achievement regardless of the vicissitudes of budget, outside support, or internal strife.
“The district’s mission is a quality school in every neighborhood; I believe that what we need is right in our backyard,” she said in a recent phone interview, likening her challenges to the “Wizard of Oz” wonderment of finding all the answers at home.
Known widely, but informally, as a “turnaround principal"—Central Elementary is not officially designated as a failing school in need of formal turnaround—Ms. Marten objects to the potential misinterpretation of that moniker. She rejects the idea that she possesses any “superhero” leadership qualities and questions the wider meaning of transforming educational institutions.
“That ‘turnaround’ term has national implications for corporate America coming in and turning around a school. Outsiders. I don’t believe in a paradigm that somebody outside is going to save you. I don’t think we even need to be saved,” she said. “The solutions are local: parents, uncles, grandparents, philanthropies, agencies. Whatever is in your own backyard, … not some flashy new program.”
Ms. Marten believes that, in relying on local resources for her brand of school reform at Central, she has been creating change that is more likely to last and earn the confidence of the community.
“With every decision I’ve made, [I ask], ‘Is this going to be sustainable if the money comes or the money goes? Is it scalable?’ ” she said.
For the benefit of San Diego Unified, Ms. Marten’s work will need to scale up her approach in a district that runs 118 elementary schools, 24 middle schools, 26 high schools, 44 charter schools, and a number of specialized schools on a $1 billion annual operating budget.
“The biggest challenge is her transition from being a principal to having more responsibility for a district the size of San Diego. But I wouldn’t consider that an insurmountable challenge. She’s obviously a quick learner,” said Dan A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va. He said he is unaware of any elementary school principal being named directly to such a position in a district with more than 2,000 students.
Another observer who can appreciate Ms. Marten’s challenge is Deborah Jewell-Sherman, now director of the Urban Superintendents Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A former elementary school principal herself, she was the superintendent of schools in Richmond, Va., for six years—but only after studying at Harvard and taking other leadership roles in the district.
“This is a [superintendency] we’ll probably be watching throughout the nation,” she said. “Part of me is tickled to death. If people who have no concept of teaching and learning can step into the role, she’s going to be able to show all of us just what an elementary school principal can do.”
Ms. Jewell-Sherman summarizes the road ahead: “Now she will have to do systemically what she was able to do in her elementary school, while taking on fiscal challenges, political challenges, [and] governance concerns.”
But Ms. Jewell-Sherman also cautions, “The learning curve is going to be rather steep. My hope is that she will surround herself not only with people who are embracing her ... but also people from a local university or the corporate sector who can help her think about this as a system, as opposed to a school.”
Carl Cohn, who served as San Diego’s superintendent from 2005 to 2007 and is now director of the Urban Leadership Program in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., sees a strong signal from the local school board.
“By this selection, it seems to me that [the school board’s] theory of action for change is that it will be school-based, decentralized, collaborative—the opposite of the ‘top down’ corporate reform model that so many other places are articulating,” he said. The choice “grows out of their listening to the stakeholders in that community.
“The San Diego board of education, which appointed Ms. Marten unanimously, gave her a major vote of confidence by granting her the maximum allowable contract—four years—with a starting salary of $255,000, which is $5,000 more than Mr. Kowba’s earnings in the position. Ms. Marten has committed to donate that additional $5,000 to a student who is planning a career in education.
Barbara Flannery, the president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs, which guides and supports 80 PTA units in San Diego, says she thought the board’s decision on Ms. Marten was “surprising in its speed,” but she does not dispute the wisdom of the move. The current superintendent is “very engaging and he’s always been there supporting our PTA effort,” she said. She will be looking for Ms. Marten to be similarly accessible.
“In fact, Cindy Marten is coming to our next general meeting, so she’s definitely out there, meeting the community,” she said.
Ms. Marten said she is eager to tap any parent resource—whether part of an organized group, or not—to accomplish her goals. She especially appreciates Ms. Redding’s efforts to get organized parent groups prepared to work with her.
“Amy ignited a parent group that’s right there, at the ready,” Ms. Marten said. “The parents are the heart of the community,” she said. “We do the work together.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as San Diego Superintendent Pick Has Deep Parental Ties