By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
Last summer, while most of the nation focused on the impending administrative changes in Washington, D.C., Laguna Beach Unified School District adjusted to its own change in leadership, as Jason Viloria became the district’s new superintendent.
At the time, Viloria, who replaced former Superintendent Sherine Smith, said he was committed to the power of community. In a State of the Schools address last September, he pledged to spend his first year listening, learning, and leading.
School officials and parents say he’s kept his pledge.
“I have been on school site visits with him and he has a manner that is engaging and friendly,” said board President Jan Vickers. “He is at ease with the students and questions them about their work in a way that demonstrates true interest.”
Kathleen Fay, an advocate for Laguna Beach Unified Council of PTAs, said Viloria “regularly attends our PTA Council meetings and other events to keep in touch with the interests and concerns of our parent leaders.”
Having grown up in Modjeska Canyon and married in Laguna, Viloria is no stranger to the area. Both of his children attend LBUSD schools, giving him a vested interest in their success. Viloria said he wants to preserve Laguna’s educational heritage while maintaining flexibility in his outlook.
“It’s important to consider whether the status quo is best or if there is something better for the students,” said Viloria.
Significant adjustments are already underway in language arts, where a new curriculum has recently been adopted. Viloria said teachers are excited about blending media and creating dynamic ways to engage readers. Instructors now use reading level assessments, called lexiles, to match students with appropriate material and help them connect with literature.
Thurston Middle School is about to launch an integrated science program, where three years of science standards will be taught in larger, intersecting units of study. Viloria said that teachers visited other schools and became excited about this new instructional model.
Significant personnel changes have also occurred during Viloria’s brief tenure. The district hired Alysia Odipo as assistant superintendent of instruction, Jeff Dixon as assistant superintendent of business services, and Ryan Zajda as director of facilities. Viloria also hired Jason Allemann, the new high school principal, and Michael Keller, who will take a new position, director of social emotional support.
Viloria said that many factors contributed to the decision to create Keller’s role. He said parents asked him to increase social emotional support during his first board meeting and added that surveys show Laguna families’ desire for such assistance. He also said that school counselors have requested leadership and guidance.
After a devastating display of racism by several LBHS students in December, Viloria said all hands got on deck to address the issue. He met with all four school principals and the five leaders sent out a joint letter committing to a culture of respect in the district and the community.
To help the district move forward, motivational speaker Keith Hawkins was asked to address high school and middle school students. Viloria said Hawkins’ talks started a positive dialogue among students. He said summer seminars will help staff cultivate supportive environments on school campuses. The 2017-18 school year will kick off with a staff leadership program led by school culture consultant Phil Boyte.
Viloria said that, in examining the district’s needs, it seemed like best practice to bring in a social emotional director. He said social work is a growing field in many school districts, and cited schools in San Diego, Irvine, and Newport that have already moved in this direction.
“Our district is not unique,” said Viloria.
Reflecting on the past 12 months, Viloria said he is “proud of the work we accomplished this year and how we continue to be focused on continuous improvement.” He praised Laguna teachers and staff and said he is grateful to have a productive, collaborative working relationship with the board.
Viloria said that building relationships is his primary goal for the future. Citing the findings of John Hattie, the author of “Visible Learning,” Viloria said that interpersonal relationships have a greater impact than many other educational factors. He said he wants to foster more interactions between students and staff so that youngsters feel connected and engaged beyond the realm of academics.
“Curriculum is constantly changing,” said Viloria, “but kids come here to learn and grow. It’s our job to provide the best environment for them to do so.”