Navigating the Complexities of School Reopenings with Alumni Superintendents Adam Clark and CJ Cammack

We interviewed Kalmanovitz School of Education alumni, Superintendents CJ Cammack and Adam Clark, to understand how the Lasallian values that were instilled in them by Saint Mary’s have influenced the way they are leading through the pandemic.

On February 3, 2021, Dean Carol Ann Gittens, PhD was joined by alumni Superintendents CJ Cammack (Multiple Subject Teaching Credential '01, MA in Educational Leadership '03, Preliminary Administrative Services Credential '04) and Adam Clark (Multiple Subject Teaching Credential '96, MA in Educational Administration '99, Preliminary Administrative Services Credential '99, EdD in Leadership '16) to discuss how the Lasallian values that were instilled in them by Saint Mary’s College of California and their time at the Kalmanovitz School of Education have influenced how they are approaching leading through the pandemic, especially with the debate to extend remote instruction or reopen schools. Conducting the interview alongside the dean was Cindy Goin, the Field Experience Placement coordinator for the Multiple Subject Teacher Education Program at the Kalmanovitz School of Education. She is also an adjunct faculty in the Multiple Subject Teacher Education Program and the Preliminary Administrative Services Credential Program.

Superintendent Adam Clark, EdD began his 20-year career in education as an elementary teacher in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. After five years, he pivoted to school administration, serving as vice principal and principal at several schools for a 10-year span. He then transitioned to district office leadership roles, serving as the Assistant Superintendent of Admin Student Services in the Liberty Union High School District and the Associate Superintendent of Educational Services in the Antioch Unified School District. After serving for three years in the Vallejo City Unified School District, he recently accepted the position of Superintendent at the Mount Diablo Unified School District.

Superintendent CJ Cammack started as a fifth grade teacher in Superintendent Clark’s district at El Monte Elementary. He then moved into administration at Martinez Unified School District and spent time as a director of special education and student services. He was Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in both Martinez and the San Ramon Valley. For the last four years, he was the Superintendent at the Martinez Unified School District before he was given the opportunity to serve as the Superintendent of the Fremont Unified High School District, where he currently works.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

 

Cindy Goin: You're both legendary in this area in terms of how much people respect and admire the work that you do. I’m curious to know a little bit more about your time and experiences at the Kalmanovitz School of Education. Can you share a little bit more about some of your memorable moments or experiences at Saint Mary’s?
 

Superintendent Cammack: When I look back to my credential program, it was the perfect balance of developing the way that I think and the way that I envision my role in education. I got pushed in a way that challenged every single thought that I had about education and what it meant to be a good teacher. At the same time, I was equipped with the tactical strategies and practical solutions to implement action, and that piece of what I can do to be of service was what drove me to my administration program.

I wasn't necessarily on the traditional timeline for the administration program. I went into my master's program maybe two or three years after I started teaching, and the thing that drove me to that was my desire to make a difference, a positive impact in the lives of these students. How do I change their trajectory? How do I break a cycle that's not benefiting them? I looked at my job as a servant to the students, to make their lives better every year. I realized through my work in that program, that if I can lead a school the right way, I can make a difference for 500 of my elementary school students each year. When I went through my master's program, it was again that perfect marriage of challenging the way that I'm thinking as an educational leader, challenging me to check my assumptions, and develop new levels of understanding. That's what I found so valuable about the master's program for administration and leadership — that marriage of challenging personal development and making it professionally possible.

Between the two cohorts of my credential and master’s programs, I have a rolodex of people in the industry that I call trusted colleagues and friends. Whether they were part of my class or not, there's a network out there. When I went to San Ramon, I was working with leaders that came out of my cohort. When I was in Martinez, I was hiring people that came from the Kalmanovitz School of Education. When I was in Mount Diablo, I was teaching with people who were within my credential program — and that's been a big part as well.
 

Superintendent Adam Clark, EdDSuperintendent Clark: When I was getting my teaching credential, one of the books we used was a book on math by Marilyn Burns and it was so powerful to me. I was teaching in an environment where worksheets were the norm. I started bringing these concepts that I learned from studying Marilyn Burns, the hands-on approach of learning math and looking for patterns and things like that. When I left teaching and I went into administration, I gave away all my materials but kept the Marilyn Burns book. I still have it because it was that powerful in building my foundation. We may have just been teaching math, but so much about teaching any subject is teaching them about life and about relationships and about being kind to one another.

As I was getting my Administration Credential, I remember during one of the Saturday afternoon sessions, one my professors put out an old pair of tennis shoes and set a brown bag lunch on the table. They said, “Going into school administration, these are your tools: these old worn out tennis shoes and a bag lunch.” He knew that to be good as an administrator you need to walk the halls and the yard, really get to know kids. I have seen administrators over the years who fall into the trap of living in their offices and not in classrooms or out on the playground or at pickup and drop-off … As a young vice principal, this was a foundational lesson that I learned. You have to connect with your community, with your students, with your parents, with your teachers, so that you can ultimately provide the support they need.

Putting yourself out there, being vulnerable, really came out through the doctoral program. All the work that I did in the program was directly related to the work that I was currently doing in my career. That allowed me to realize that I wasn't doing this alone. I wasn't on an island going through the struggles that we go through in public education — really trying to make sure that all students are served and all students have equal opportunities and support. I wasn't alone in this journey. I had the teachings and support of my cohort, and when you're in that cohort and you're forced to work with people who are different, it really influences growth.

Oftentimes as vice principal or principal, I had a particular way of seeing my work and seeing how people reacted. I talked about organizational change a lot. If you're going to be an administrator, you’re going to have to deal with change. Knowing how people respond to change was so instrumental to me because it lifted this weight off my shoulders. I felt it was personal against me because I was implementing an initiative and people naturally resist because they want more information, or they're unsure, or they're trying to hang on to an old way of practicing. So once I really got to understand that it wasn’t personal against me, that is what has allowed me to really be an effective leader on this scale.
 

Dean Gittens: I’m wondering if you could tie some of the Lasallian values to your role right now in your new districts and how it actually is playing out in your everyday life.
 

Superintendent Clark: Right now my reality is dealing with the pandemic and helping the communities of color and the underserved populations who are disproportionately affected by COVID. The infection rates, the hospitalization rates, and the death rates are all higher for those populations. There are also the financial implications of folks losing their jobs and I am seeing the desperation that's happening with some of our families. So, I'm making sure that we are going above and beyond when it comes to delivering food out in our communities, and meeting those basic needs.

But now we are starting to have big debates about returning to school. What I'm seeing is in the wealthier areas, there are more pathways to get back to school. And in the more impoverished areas, there are so many roadblocks that come up in those conversations. As a leader, I'm having to navigate that space, and make sure that I am listening to people's fears, anxieties, and questions. Unfortunately, everyone's lives have been turned sideways through this pandemic and so we have to be responsive to that. But my focus is still on those underserved students, the underserved communities, and how we can continue to support them. That's really where those core principles are being tested now because, again, this is hard work. This is very political, it's very emotional, and luckily I have that foundation of who I am, what I believe in, and how I communicate that out. We just really have to engage and be empathetic to what people are going through.
 

Dean Gittens: Superintendent Cammack, I ask you the same question: how is the pandemic affecting you in your daily life? How is it affecting you in your personal life and your work life? The tests, I think, are similar, but maybe your experiences are slightly different.
 

Superintendent Cammack: When I look at the role the Lasallian core principles Superintendent CJ Cammackplay in the work that we're doing, as Superintendent Clark is describing, it's about service and equity and how we define those things within our work. As Superintendent Clark is describing, we need to look at the parts of our community that are being disproportionately impacted by this pandemic and what that means for them. Our two districts are similar in size, 29,000-34,000 roughly, but the demographics are a bit different. There becomes an empathetic detective that has to emerge in you. You have to filter through all of the voices that you're hearing. You have to look at how you can serve all voices equitably. You have to listen for the voices that you don't always hear. You have to be listening for the voices that aren't at the table, because maybe they don't have access to deliver their message the way that other members of your community do. So, how do we help the students who need the most intensive help because their families are being disproportionately negatively impacted by the pandemic? How do we make sure as leaders that we're honoring the work that our staff are doing? There's rhetoric that exists out in the world that doesn't honor the work that teachers and classified staff are doing, even pre-pandemic. And, unfortunately, the volume of that rhetoric has gotten louder in the debate about when to reopen schools. Because the teachers are taking on this Herculean task of transforming the entire way in which we teach and the way we connect with kids. They're doing it in such an admirable fashion. I think when we look at the scope of our work, it's about the equity piece. It's about the service piece in terms of, how can I help people do their work?

Cindy Goin: So you've both mentioned the pandemic, and one of the things we were hoping to talk about is your experience leading through COVID, just on a nuts and bolts level. What's your first priority each day and how has that shifted since COVID? And then on top of that, I'd be curious about some of the tough decisions that you've had to make in the last year.
 

Superintendent Clark: Probably one of the toughest decisions that I've had to make was when we first shut down schools back in March. I remember I was on a conference call with other superintendents in the county and we were debating about closing schools. I remember my plea was for our kids. I knew parents have to go to work and if you close the schools, students aren't going to receive that safety net of being in school. That was a very, very tough decision for me. I immediately was thinking, “How are we ever going to get back if we do close?”

I start my day by saying, “Okay, what has changed from yesterday? What is new? What new article is out?” And that's been hard because I can’t just go with the flow as superintendent. I am steering this big ship and we don't pivot very well. We need a lot of space, a lot of time, and a lot of answers to a lot of questions. Every single day has been dedicated to reading articles, listening to press conferences, looking at websites doing research, and even after a year of doing that, I still don't have all the answers.
 

Superintendent Cammack: I would agree with you, Superintendent Clark. I think that is really the scope and sequence for most superintendents right now. It is a daily process of making sure you have the most up-to-date information. And as Superintendent Clark described, it is very much a unique balance of trying to figure out our scope as educational leaders and what things should be measured by the medical professionals. That has been so blurred over the past year that it's remarkable how intertwined those two things have become, and managing that is one of the most challenging parts. Navigating that has been a constant challenge. I would also echo the sentiments that the decision to close schools was remarkably difficult.
 

Dean Gittens: I am going to ask you a question that is going to maybe force you to look into your crystal balls a bit: I am curious where you think K-12 education is going from here? How do schools recover from COVID? What are some of the opportunities in this to think differently?
 

Superintendent Clark: I'm not quite sure how we're going to recover or what it's going to look like if we're going to come back this year. I think the old adage of “we've always done it this way” is gone. We've shown how resilient we are as an organization and as a profession. Moving an entire district online is not easy. We have some people in our communities where that's a real benefit to them. Schools are challenging places, and if you can get that work done while being in the safe confines of your home, then that's needed for some students. On the flip side of that, it's also demonstrated that we have to change our approach to learning. It can't be this one-size-fits-all, one way of measuring success through standardized testing, etc. As a profession we have to evolve with the times. I think these times have shown us how fragile life is and how important relationships, empathy, and support of one another are. We need to keep that at the forefront as we move forward and as we start to redefine how we do business and how we operate.
 

Superintendent Cammack: I think those are great points Superintendent Clark, and I agree with you. I think one thing that I look at in this sense is how do we emerge from this differently and what stays the same? I think the biggest focal point that I'm going to be trying to push as an educational leader in the county, in the community, and whoever will listen to me at the state level, is this has put a spotlight on what we as educators have known for decades. We have been asked to do the impossible with resources that are the equivalent of holding the thing together with bubblegum and duct tape. I think it has shown a much different context of how complex the school system is. It is so far beyond reading and writing. We are asking our public school systems to be so much more than just an institution that teaches reading and writing and science and social studies, I think this pandemic has shown us that we need more structured social and emotional learning opportunities.

I think one of the things that stays the same is our teachers have always taken their students every year and think, “How do I meet my kids there, and how do I move them as far as I can over the next nine months?” We need to continue to look past the artificial metrics that don't encompass the whole child. The other part of it is the investment in the profession as a whole. We've had a teacher shortage for years because we don't honor the work in a cultural way. I'm hoping that this shows us we need to do a better job of funding our school systems in a way that really recruits the best and the brightest. If we really want to change the future of education and make the teaching force match the students that they're seeing, we've got to be an industry that brings in the best and the brightest.
 

We at the Kalmanovitz School of Education extend heartfelt thank yous to Superintendents Cammack and Clark for taking the time out of their busy schedules to sit down and speak with us.