San Mateo County Superintendent Nancy Magee has Alexander Hamilton on the brain.
Not just because the recently-elected top education official scored theater tickets to the San Francisco performance of the Broadway mega-hit spotlighting the statesman, but because she can draw parallels between his path and hers.
Following a come-from-behind victory in the fall election over her former colleague Gary Waddell to fill the seat previously occupied by Anne Campbell, Magee said she’s not throwing away her shot at building a cabinet of talented educators.
Like Hamilton facing off with fellow Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison amidst their mission to establish a burgeoning nation, Magee said she is focused on identifying a team of top-notch administrators.
As she moved up the ranks from her former associate superintendent post and with the former deputy superintendent Waddell taking a similar job in Santa Clara County, Magee was immediately faced with filling two vital positions in the county office.
Longtime colleague Jenee Litrell moved over to fill the position previously occupied by Magee, who is now searching for the right candidate to take the position last filled by Waddell.
An educator with nearly three decades of experience, Magee established a lengthy resumé working in the classroom and administrative ranks — experiences from which she said she will draw when facing her new challenge.
“It’s amazing how those experiences keep coming back to me in my current life, because where I am right now is pulling together my team, and I’m really thinking about how to tighten up the team, and really focus on people’s strengths and get impactful results,” she said.
As she looks ahead to the areas where would most like to focus and see some of that impact made, Magee said she expects the county office to continue its primary charge of offering local school districts support in fields such as budget development, special education and working as an intermediary to the state government.
Workforce issues such as teacher housing and professional development can also be programs which the county office can support, she said. But, as is the case with so much policy, Magee acknowledged her capacity to guide the conversation is limited.
“Those are things the county office should be a part of. We’re a collaborative partner. So we don’t necessarily need to lead it, but we need to be absolutely present and participating,” she said.
Additionally though, Magee said she is hopeful the county office can expand its leadership role through new undertakings such as helping streamline students’ transition between elementary and high school.
Such work could be an example of striking an appropriate balance between allowing local school systems to keep authority over their environments, while maintaining the broader perspective needed from the county office, she said.
“We can have our local control inside our local school districts, and we step into a more regional approach when it makes sense,” she said.
Another example of ways a regional approach can be effective is school safety training, which was a primary focus for Magee prior to her election. Magee helped establish the Big Five protocol for emergency preparedness and response, which has served as a model across the county for school systems and other agencies.
To continue other successful programs for her office, Magee said she looks forward to growing the Big Lift, which is an early education language development effort assisting less fortunate local districts.
The program launched in collaboration with the county Board of Supervisors and Silicon Valley Community Foundation has proven successful in helping young students build their reading and language skills, which improves their likelihood for success in later grades.
Beyond the lasting focus on language arts though, Magee said would like to assure math skills are also kept sharp among local students. Comparing test scores from the two fields, Magee showed many students from less fortunate districts struggled mightily in math during the recent round of Smarter Balanced testing.
“Math is a very specific issue about equity. Many of our kids in the state aren’t doing well, period. And some of our particularly under-resourced demographic populations are doing even worse. And math is the gatekeeper to what people assume is the path to college,” she said.
As a result, Magee said she believed regional partnership between local elementary and high school districts focusing on math instruction could be an effective means of broadening opportunities for all students in San Mateo County.
“More kids are prepared for whatever new adventures they want to step into when they graduate,” said Magee, of the chance presented by a broader approach to teaching and learning.
Looking ahead, preserving equity and access for students throughout their time in school could be a forthcoming initiative for the county office — a sort of expansion of the Big Lift’s mission to students into the later grades or other fields.
“There are many ways to be a successful adult in this world, and it’s not just any one single path. And sometimes I feel like we as a community think in more traditional ways — like success generally means acceptance to Stanford. So we really need to broaden that for kids,” she said.
Such bold vision from the outset of her first term will require years of hard work and overcoming setbacks. But for Magee, when it comes to improving opportunities for local students, she wants to be in office when it happens.
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