A Superintendent’s Thoughts on How COVID-19 Is an Opportunity to Do Better and Ensure Student Success.
Anne Staffieri, EdD, ’16, Superintendent of Escondido Union High School District in Southern California, has spent more than 28 years in education. As she surveys her career, she sees a series of defining opportunities rather than defining moments, from a school closure to a pandemic. She’s seized each opportunity as a chance to move forward—and lead others—with positivity and compassion.
Becoming an Educator
Coming from generations of physicians, Staffieri originally planned to follow her family into medicine, but her mind changed during an internship in Mexico, volunteering in a hospital and teaching English. Staffieri felt a kinship with those “providing education and providing lifelong skills” to students.
After her internship, Staffieri earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from BYU. She went on to earn a master’s in arts education curriculum from California State University and later returned to BYU to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership. For four years, Staffieri commuted from San Diego to Utah every month to complete the program, all while working and raising four children with her husband, Russ.
Staffieri is a true veteran in education. She has worked as a high school biology teacher, independent study program administrator, continuation high school principal, elementary principal, HR administrator, and superintendent for two school districts, including EUHSD. For Staffieri, returning to the district in which she first taught felt like coming home.
One of Staffieri’s defining opportunities came when she was principal of Valley Center Elementary. On the cusp of receiving the California Distinguished School Award—an impressive accolade for Staffieri, her staff, and students—the school board voted to close the school after more than 75 years of operation. Rather than succumbing to anger or frustration, Staffieri’s team decided to celebrate the time they had left and support their students.
“We chose as a school community to complain privately and celebrate publicly for the benefit of our students and their families. Yes, we were upset that our successful school was being closed, and yes, it was difficult to understand and felt unfair. We chose to take the high road, celebrate, and focus on where we were going. And I think I'll never forget that because, the truth is, in life or in your career, you're always going to have things that are frustrating and are hard to understand, but instead of focusing our energies on that anger, we focused our energies on celebrating our students, making that challenging experience something we could really learn from.”
Staffieri is meeting another opportunity to focus on her students rather than circumstantial frustrations during COVID-19. In March, she and her team rallied together to ensure student success during the beginning of the pandemic. Beyond closing campuses and transitioning to online learning, Staffieri’s team had to ensure students’ basic needs are met. With over 70% of students living in poverty, as foster youths, or homeless, Staffieri’s first priority during campus closures was providing meals to students.
The team also traveled door-to-door (in protective equipment) in April and May to check on students who had been absent from virtual classes. “We care about the students, and we care about their families. . . . What we discovered on those home visits was amazing. Our presence really communicated a lot to [students]—that we did care, and [that] we were there for the right reasons.” In the future, Staffieri wants to continue home visits and welfare check-ins “because it helps us to stay connected with the reality of what our students and families are facing.”
Staffieri said the pandemic is teaching her and her district to be more compassionate. “Teachers, students, parents, school board members, community members—it's been challenging for all of us. That's why I think relationships that we have with one another and the care and compassion we show to one another cannot be underscored enough.”
While COVID-19 is providing many challenges for Staffieri’s district, she views it as yet another way for her and her district to grow. “Amidst the constantly changing conditions of this pandemic, we have an opportunity to really look at how we structure education and focus on where we can channel our energies to help the most students have the most success. This is an opportunity to think outside the box and set systems to really close those achievement gaps. We have an opportunity to re-create environments of learning with enhanced equity for all of our students, especially underserved populations, English learners, or special education students. We can turn things around.”
For more on how EdLF advocates for equity in education, read about associate professor Spencer Weiler and his involvement with an education finance conference on civil rights.
Writer: Emma Smith
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922