“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 could channel our energies to help the most students have the most success.”
Anne Staffieri, ’16, superintendent of Escondido Union High School District in Southern California, has spent more than 28 years in education. She has worked as a high school biology teacher, independent study program administrator, principal of an alternative high school, elementary principal, HR administrator, and superintendent for two school districts. As she surveys her career, she sees a series of “defining opportunities” rather than defining moments. From a school closure to a pandemic, she has seized each event as a chance to move forward—and lead others—with positivity and compassion.
Becoming an Educator
Staffieri experienced her first defining opportunity as a college undergraduate. Coming from generations of physicians, she planned a career in medicine, but her mind changed during an internship in Mexico, where she volunteered in a hospital and taught English. Staffieri felt a kinship with those “providing education and providing lifelong skills” to students.
After her internship, Staffieri earned a bachelor’s in biology from BYU and a master’s in arts education curriculum from California State University. She later returned to BYU for a doctorate in educational leadership. For four years Staffieri commuted from San Diego to Utah every month, all while working and raising four children with her husband, Russ.
One of Staffieri’s most impactful defining opportunities came as principal of Valley Center Elementary. On the cusp of receiving the California Distinguished School Award—an impressive accolade for Staffieri’s staff and the students—the school board voted to close the school after more than 75 years of operation. Instead of succumbing to anger or frustration, Staffieri’s team decided to celebrate the time they had left.
“In life or in your career, you are always going to have things that are frustrating and hard to understand,” Staffieri said. “Instead of focusing our energies on that anger, we focused our energies on celebrating our students and making that challenging experience something we could really learn from.”
Staffieri sees another defining opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, she and her team rallied together to ensure student success. Beyond closing campuses and transitioning to online learning, the team had to evaluate students’ basic needs. With more than 70 percent of their students living in poverty, as foster youths, or homeless, Staffieri prioritized 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,” she said. “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.” 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 feels the pandemic is teach-ing her and her district to be more com-passionate. “Teachers, students, parents, school board members, and community members—it has been challenging for all of us. I think relationships that we have with one another and the care and com-passion we show to one another cannot be underscored enough,” she said.
Despite its many challenges, Staffieri views the pandemic as yet another way for her and her district to grow: “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.”