SUPERINTENDENT OF GREENFIELD USD (CA)
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
So, I am so excited today to have with me Superintendent Zandra Jo Galvan from Greenfield Union in California, a dear friend and colleague and someone I respect so much for the incredible work you do nationally. Welcome!
Thank you so much. I am so honored to be here with you, share some space, and talk about the things that we do in our day to day.
So, you know, sharing this space is a unique space because you’re also in the middle of getting ready to run this school year you kicked off about three weeks ago. This is your seventh year of kicking off a school year as a superintendent. How is that going? And what are your thoughts about what you want this year to mean?
Yeah, so we launched this year; I’m super excited. We had our convocation as a student panel, talking about their hopes and dreams. This year’s theme is hashtag cultivating curiosity, trust, inspire, discover, and grow. We’re using that theme throughout the district because we want kids to go back to being kids to just start with things from the first time and get curious about it. Do that first iteration, do it again, do it again, and take risks. And the inspiration will be based on Stephen Covey’s book that he just launched. And so we are doing that work at our administrative level. But also, every school is reading a chapter, and departments are breaking it up at grade levels to look at how do we create this culture of craving to learn and to inspire our kids to greatness. And so that’s really the thing that we’re excited about.
Every morning, I start off by being in classrooms with kids, just capturing them being kids, whether it’s a preschooler all the way up to our secondary level, finding out what makes them happy, what are their hopes and dreams and then creating opportunities to cultivate that.
So Zandra, I always love how intentional you are. You always connect things, you bring so much joy to spaces, and you’re always very student-centered. But these are some wacky times we’re in, a little bit politically interesting. It’s about as much as I can say about what’s happening throughout our nation, and a lot of those things that are happening politically are distracting for us. And rather than get into that, what I’m interested in is hearing from you is, What are those major changes since you started teaching to where you are as a superintendent? What are one or two things that you point to that have changed significantly for leaders and teachers going into education today?
Yeah, the huge change is what’s in the spotlight. And what is the conversational piece now that, in the past, we didn’t talk about? We didn’t talk about how important ethnic studies are, we didn’t talk about how important it is to honor LGBTQ-plus communities, we didn’t talk about things. We just put it under the rug. We said, you know what, that might be something, but we’re not going to talk about that. We’re not going to touch it. And so having those front and center, like even in the past, we did not really talk about a college-going culture, like sometimes many of our families just assumed they would go right into the workforce right away and not necessarily go to college. So, all of those things are now discussion points. And honoring and nurturing the gifts that students bring to us and who they are is so important.
I am very fortunate to work in a community I grew up in. I honor and nurture the gifts that students bring us. I’m very happy and honored to work for a board that supports that. They see kids for who they are. They are not opposed to ethnic studies. We already had a course in our secondary setting before it was even a requirement in California because we honor kids learning about their history. We have so many Parent Cafes and events in our district where we include our parents as partners, and they see the value they bring in as asset-value-minded rather than deficit mindsets. And then with our LGBTQ community, we’re not going to turn a kid away and say, No, we are going to shake that out of you. It’s impossible, so we have those conversations about, if this is what you’re feeling, how can we support you in your journey through life and ensure you can fulfill your hopes and dreams. We’re going to nurture and support you from where you enter our school system and then take you further along. So I think it’s more now the climate is that we talk about those things. We don’t pretend that they don’t exist. And we’re unafraid and unapologetic to say what we need to say because if we don’t, silence is permission to continue that behavior. And we’re not going to allow kids to just be dismissed or overlooked because of something in their heart.
I love the way you couch this period of time. It is a time when we are talking about embracing lots of changes. 54% of our students in public education today are students of color, and growing, and the white population is decreasing – there are changing demographics in this nation. It’s creating different conditions and contexts for dialogue. And that is a good thing. Conflict is going to be a natural part of that. So I love how you couch it around the message: we’re going to embrace everyone, welcome everyone, and learn from everyone. That’s a great culture and climate you are building there.
Thank you. And we also open up spaces for adults to talk about those things. Because we know there’s a movement, and we’re part of that movement, making sure that representation matters and students see themselves in the adults that are their role models in school settings. And so the more we have that representation professionally, someone that they could aspire to become, is really important.
We also open up spaces. I am proud to say that we will have book clubs with our staff members, and nationally and locally within our organizations that we support that talk about that. I mean, we talked about the anti-racist, racist curriculum with Dr. Kennedy. And we talked about what does that mean? And how do I enter into a space without assumptions about who you are based on who you appear to be? Or assumptions about your life.
We have books that we’ve talked about like Separate Is Never Equal. Talking about colorism between even our Latino kids. We are a 98% Latino community with a 95% unduplicated count of students in poverty. Parents trust us with their greatest commodity: their children. And so we talk about things that exist, like colorism. I’ll say light-skinned Latinos certainly have a little more privilege than those who aredark-skinned. I am part of that privilege. When I walk into spaces, people make assumptions about me and don’t think I speak Spanish or don’t think I am even Hispanic in nature and a Latina. And so I firmly embrace that and talk about my journey of sometimes being embarrassed when I grew up and that it was better that I listened to country music rather than mariachi. During that time, it was a melting pot. They were trying to strip us of our true authenticity. The alternative was to assimilate. And so all of those things that we experience, we use as our lived narrative to transform the lives of the students we serve and the people that we serve because there are people within our community that are scarred because of that. So, bringing light to that.
Another book club that we embraced nationally, and many of my staff engaged in, was For Brown Girls With Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez. We talked about her book and, staying true to who we are and being unapologetic about being a brown girl. And so, while maybe my younger version of myself during that time was afraid to say, Yes, I’m brown, and I’m proud of being brown, and this is my community because that’s what was indoctrinated into us, is completely a different person that entered into the educational system and honoring and nurturing and just celebrating the gifts that all ethnic backgrounds bring. But I represent a very special brown Latina in me. I want to make sure that our girls within our communities are proud, are very proud, and never mistake or shun their heritage because it’s not popular.
So Zandra, a couple of times, you talked about the book clubs and discussions you’re in nationally. You’re leading a school district in California. You are at the local level, part of statewide and regional networks, and part of these national dialogues. You’re a mom, and you’re also a doctoral student. So I would love to talk a little bit about that. What does it mean to you to be pursuing your doctorate? You are at the University of Southern California at dissertation stage. This is a huge additional accomplishment, but also additional pressure on your time and your attention. So, how’s that going?
Yeah, so it is a balancing act. It definitely is. I’m so honored to have the family structure at home that I am able to do the things I want to do as a superintendent. My husband’s retired. And so he gets to do the things that he loves to do. I have three children. I have a 13-year-old and twins that are 11. And so that balance with them is in the evenings, on the weekends, it’s family time. As much during the evenings as I can give them, with the constraints of our job. But Friday night, through the weekend, is absolutely family time where I am devoted to being present for my children and during those vacation times so that they never think that I missed out on mom’s time because she was working too much. So I’m very cognizant of that and trying to find the balance. On the other side, on the educational professional side, when you live out your passion, it’s not work, it’s not work. And I think, as we go through a journey in life, and I had a lot of my own experiences that were not very good, that I switch over and make them into good by then changing the live narrative or the lived experience of the students in this district or others. It’s passion work.
Life, to me, is just a series of moments, and realizing as we get older and wiser that every moment is something that you never get back. And so the energy that you bring into spaces, the way you live your life, who you give your time to, how you prioritize what’s important and the impact, the lasting impression that you are able to offer to others, through our passions, is what allows it to not be so much work, but to be fulfillment. And so I will share that being a superintendent is the greatest joy. One of my favorite, most favorite positions in life, even on the days when I’m in the corner licking my wounds and curled up in a ball like, oh my god, how am I gonna do this? I have sister Sups and people like you, people like Liz Alvarez, who I adore, from Chicago, people like LaTonya Goffney, who I adore from Texas, Katrice Perera, people all over the nation who are my sisters that say, Zandra, snap out of it, your crown fell off for a little bit, put it back on, you’re a queen, you can do this work, continue to live out your passion. That supports it.
The passion with additional mentoring of female Sups through AASA and ALAS. I just ended my presidency with CALSA. All those things are just being able to connect with others to show them that you, too, can live out your passion and feel fulfilled at the end of the day because of the impact you’ve made and your engagement with others. I also really love to uplift sisters and further superintendents. I know you have the most current statistics regarding superintendents across this nation. And so my dissertation work is going to be all about that. My passion is increasing the number of superintendents of color, black and brown, but not just women. I love my sisters, and we will command a space; we walk into it because we’re very confident and know we deserve that seat. But all people, black and brown men and women, students need people who look like them. Our boys need mentors, and our females need mentors. So, that balance with my doctorate in the dissertation stage is passion work. I am so excited to finish the initial chapters going into the research and interviewing because my topic is all around making sure we increase the number of black and brown superintendents nationwide. My questions are going to be about staying power.
I want to interview superintendents who have stayed in the position longer than five years because I believe there’s a secret sauce. But I don’t know what that secret sauce is. I know what my secret sauce is because I’ve lived it here, entering my seventh year. But what did other people do? And what I want to do with it then is to gift it to other black and brown sister and brother superintendents aspiring to that position to say, here it is. When you go into the position, please make sure you do this. I know there is going to be something about relationships that comes out. I don’t know what it’s going to be. But I know it’s going to be something that can be replicated because the likelihood of 10 to 12 superintendents across the nation saying something about what they did with relationships is pretty high. But I don’t know what it is. Having them talking about the organizational systems that they put into place that allowed them to stay beyond five years, there’s going to be something there, too. So, the way the balance is for me is family first. I love my family, adore them, and give them my 100% self when I’m with them. That allows me to have that professional side that isn’t work; it’s just passion lived out through the series of moments and the interactions and connecting with others that encourage others to see that it is possible.
Zandra, I love your life perspective that you bring to everything you do. But you know, there are going to be some women listening to you saying, she just said she gave 100% to her family. But she also said she has a job and she has a doctorate. And you know, the numbers don’t add up, Zandra (laughing)!
With the perspective you bring, one of the things that is interesting in the research you will be engaged with and the national research that exists is that oftentimes, as women, when we get together, and we’re supporting one another through our doctorates, we don’t realize how few superintendents actually have a doctorate. In this nation, only 11% of superintendents who are seated have doctorates, and 26% or so have master’s degrees, which means 50% of our nation’s superintendents are serving under a bachelor’s degree. But when you look at that number, over 60% of the 11% that have doctorates are women. So, there are more women with a doctorate than men in the seat with doctorates. There are also more people of color in the seat with doctorates than those who don’t identify as people of color with a doctorate. So, what are your thoughts on whether women, particularly women of color, are feeling more pressure to have a doctorate in order to serve? And what does that say about the context that we live in to have even access to a seat like this?
It’s a really great question. So, do women, in general, feel the pressure? I believe so, because the opportunities are so slim. When you look at the number of applicants in a pool for a superintendent position versus male of color, male, white male, white women, and women of color, I would say the statistics demonstrate that the white male will get it before others with or without that doctor, because you see in spaces that I interact with the number. And why is that so? I also believe that boards are gatekeepers. The boards that hire superintendents are also assuming there is this type of person that they need to hire. And it will not necessarily be a woman of color.
And so we need to do the extra to show that we are qualified. We are already qualified. I’m going to tell that to our listeners at the gate. So there is no need to get this other thing because we already have the extra before we even apply, which is why we stay in the teaching career for so long. Before we even apply, we need to get the academy. We need our children to be raised. We need to think about the setting. We need to think about our family. We need to make sure that we have that other degree and that we do have the doctorate before we even apply because of the stories we create in our own heads about who those gatekeepers will hire and not hire. With all that, an added layer of pressure is placed on women to get those; some of them are external, and some are internal.
I already had the superintendency before I got my doctorate. I started when I was already four or five years into the superintendency. Did I need it? Probably not. Did I want it? Absolutely. Absolutely, I wanted it. Why did I wait this long? Well, I was raising kids. I was doing all these other things that I was thinking, oh, one day I’ll get it. And all of a sudden, that day is coming, and it’s like, okay, just do it, apply. So, for me, it was more of a want. Why did I want it? For so many reasons. I wanted to show my children that mom can do this. If mom can do this, you can do this. I wanted to show girls and other girls in my organization that the top-level official who came to the schools that we came to, who looks just like me, can achieve a doctorate as well. I also wanted to show other females across the nation that it’s possible and, through mentorship, encourage others to do the same thing; time is still going to pass. So you might as well be taking a class, you might as well be studying things that you love. And my associate superintendent, I encouraged her; she just started the program this year. And through that mentorship, you see that it’s possible. So, did we feel the pressure? Some, yes. Did I feel the pressure, not so much a pressure as an internal force that I wanted to prove that it can be done and to show others that I want you to do it too.
I love the way you share those different layers that come into play as you think about why you’re getting a doctorate and why you want a doctorate. It shows the multifaceted ways women and women of color serve this nation. I want to wrap us up with your advice to other women. When you’re in the top leadership seat, especially when you’re a person of color, Latina, and you’re sharing, you’re always so open with your personal history, and that’s inspiring to others. Others are watching you, listening to you. What is your advice for those on the path and wondering if they should pursue the superintendency? What do you say to them?
This is a great question. I am my true self. What you see is what you get. I am unafraid to be vulnerable with people and show them that you don’t have to have one kind of vision or mold that a superintendent needs to be. We come in all shapes and sizes and colors and shades and personalities. And in our own right, we are the effective people our districts need us to be. But also personally, to be true and authentic to who we are. And so, as my journey through life has been, being the baby of six, growing up during an era coming to schools that may or may not have equity-based models, we learn, and we grow through every experience. And so, my advice to others out there, especially women looking at this position, as I don’t know if I can do it, you absolutely can. You absolutely can because you’re never going to do it alone. Because you have me. You have Dr. K. You have so many sisters across this nation who are already rooting for you before you even apply. I think that’s the first step. We need to jump over that hurdle to say, Can I? Am I enough? Can I do it? The answer is always going to be yes. Because you will always have a support system to get you there.
And the other thing that is really important to me is being a role model that others can see, it can be done. And the other part of that is, because I have an internal, ethical moral standard within me, I can’t mess this up. I can’t mess up this job. I cannot be that Latina superintendent who makes a mistake because that will be the sacrifice for all those behind me who are coming next. Because, as we know, stereotypes are really easy to place on people that then become everyone’s narrative. So what I do in this position has to be really good, has to be top-notch caliber level that cares about kids that shows that relationships matter, kids matter. Every single program, opportunity that I bring into our school district has thought and process, and meaning behind it. Because I can’t mess it up. These kids have one chance to have an amazing education. And if I am part of that determining factor and the people I hire, and the principals that walk through classrooms and the teachers that are in front of kids matter, then this role matters 1,000% more.
Once we realize the impact that you have with the title of superintendent, more women will realize that it’s for them. You are the determining factor of what gets in front of kids. And gone are the days where I had to ask someone else, can we do this? Can we do this, I know it’s really good for kids. Guess what? I get to say yes more than I say no. Because if people have a feeling in their heart, a passion in their heart when the parents come to us with a need and a hope and a dream for their baby. And I have with our team the opportunity to provide that for them that in itself is just really, really powerful. And it’s an honor to be able to serve a community that trusts us with their most precious commodity, their children. And so my answer to that, the shorter answer, is absolutely. Sisters, women, absolutely do it. Take that step. Call me, call other sister superintendents, because you’re never going to be alone. And you absolutely can do the job.
So wise and inspiring words from Zandra. Thank you so much for the time. You almost make me want to go back into the superintendency. I know it’s someone else’s turn. So, I’d rather pass the baton and inspire others to continue this incredible work. I agree with you; the superintendent seat is an incredible role. It is just a career path that is just so rewarding back to the person that’s leading. And I absolutely loved it, just like you show an eminent love for children and our community. So thank you, Superintendent, for your time with me today. Thank you for your leadership, and I look forward to continuing to see you on this journey.
Yay! Thank you so much.