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Hello and Goodbye 

The current and future county superintendents weigh in on the state of education in Humboldt

For the first time in nearly 15 years, the Humboldt County Office of Education will soon be under new leadership.

With Garry Eagles set to retire later this month after serving as the superintendent of schools since 2003, the Humboldt County Board of Education has tapped Northern Humboldt Union School District Superintendent Chris Hartley as his successor. Slated to be sworn into office in the coming weeks, Hartley will serve out the remainder of Eagles' term, which runs through next year.

Eagles has worked in HCOE for more than 30 years and came to the office after working as a teacher, counselor and school psychologist. A graduate of University of the Pacific in Stockton, Eagles has also been very involved in local charities and nonprofits, having served as president of United Way of Humboldt and the KEET TV Board of Directors, a founding board member of North Coast Repertory Theater and chair of the Humboldt Family Service Center Board of Directors.

Hartley steps into the post having served as superintendent of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District since 2013 and with experience in just about all aspects of education. A Humboldt State University product with experience as a teacher, principal and superintendent, Hartley has worked at a variety of local schools, including Zoe Barnum High School, Arcata High School, Six Rivers Charter High School and McKinleyville High School.

The transition is occurring at a seemingly pivotal period in Humboldt County education, with funding streams under constant threat and growing numbers of students needing special education services, many of them having experienced multiple traumatic experiences in their young lives. With this in mind, the Journal recently caught up with Eagles and Hartley, asking them each five questions about the state of education in Humboldt County.

Chris Hartley

NCJ: What do you see as the strengths of the education system in Humboldt County?

Chris Hartley: The strength of education in Humboldt County rests within the people that support our students. Teachers, staff, parents, administrators and our amazingly supportive community are the backbone to our success. The core to a successful education system lies within the people who support and deliver the educational experiences. From in the classroom to the arts to extracurricular activities, Humboldt County educators and community members truly thrive in working diligently and collaboratively to meet the needs of our students.

We also possess a determination to push past obstacles, search for creative approaches to our own difficult situations to serve our students. There is a tenacity and spirit in our county to tackle issues, advocate and be creative in finding solutions to issues we face. This sort of "Humboldt Spirit" can be felt as a community and within our schools. Student achievement and performance are reflective of our commitment. Humboldt County youth stand up with the best in the country and continually demonstrate that with their success in and out of the classroom.

An important strength is that our schools truly are the center of our communities, from athletics to arts to community events, folks in our county come together, build relationships, and collaborate at our school sites. There is a tremendous sense of pride and appreciation Humboldt County residents bring to and that exists within the walls of our schools.

NCJ: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing local educators, students and parents?

CH: No matter the depth of our determination and willingness to provide the best learning opportunities for our students, the issue of resources is a constant struggle. Our geographic isolation poses challenges for accessibility to community resources that meet the needs of students and community, but also for a lack of recognition. Although the state realizes the importance of local control for funding, I do not feel the current formula is equitable for our rural schools. This serves as a foundational local challenge, as well as an opportunity to make our needs known and part of the discussion at the state level.

The ability to attract and retain exemplary teachers and staff is stretched by a significant reduction in folks deciding to enter the profession. This is a statewide issue that has emerged here locally, as well, and we are all aware that a critical resource to student achievement lies with the availability of exemplary teachers, staff and administrators.

NCJ: When you step into the job, what are your top priorities?

CH: First priority is to build upon my foundational experience and knowledge of HCOE. To meet, support and serve the HCOE team of professionals as they implement their important work on behalf of students and ensure programs in place are meeting desired goals effectively supporting the 31 districts in the county.

Second, I am also excited to visit districts and schools throughout the county as this is important to celebrate their accomplishments, but to also better understand how HCOE can better support, advocate and serve the unique needs of our 31 districts.

Third, expand upon my advocacy for equitable learning experiences for Humboldt County students. Advocating on behalf of our students and districts is critical. Advocating for recognition by the state of the unique needs of rural schools, working to secure funding necessary to support our needs, and looking for opportunities to influence policy as it directly relates to the needs of our county. This truly is an "equity" issue that will serve as a major theme in my role as county superintendent.

Fourth, a constant priority will be to build relationships with community members, public agencies and businesses that will increase our capacity to serve students and maximize resources. Finally, an additional priority worthy of immediate focus will be that of preparing students for career and college readiness.

NCJ: Studies have shown that children in Humboldt County suffer a disproportionate amount of trauma. What challenges does this pose for school districts and educators, and what can schools do to address the special needs of Humboldt County children?

CH: In addition to trauma, our student population contains the highest percentage of special education population in the state. The challenge of meeting the diverse needs of our students while delivering a top quality education certainly stretches our system and capacity to do all things for all students. There is a major strain on everyone from the classroom teacher to the administrator working to not only educate students but also in providing the social and emotional support they require.

The first step is awareness and schools across our 31 districts are meeting this challenge through targeted professional development, working to adjust to the changing needs of our students, altering our mindsets and realizing the business of supporting our youth is not what is used to be. Programs like Restorative Practice and establishing Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) are taking shape across the county.

Blending our academic supports with social emotional development of students is significant step to enhancing our capacity to leverage our programs to be effective, efficient and integrated.

NCJ: Is there one primary lesson you've learned watching Superintendent Eagles' tenure, what is it?

CH: Dr. Eagles has always demonstrated an incredible openness and ability to support, advise, mentor and guide educators throughout the county. Staff, teachers and administration have all benefited from his guidance and focus on always supporting the best interests of students. But not only has he always been there in this capacity, perhaps most importantly, he models leadership and truly demonstrates qualities important to all educators through example. Dr. Eagles has established a true legacy by empowering others while relentlessly pursuing and supporting what is best for all students.

NCJ: What does Humboldt County as a whole have to do to take better care of and better educate its youth and what should HCOE's role be in that?

CH: Humboldt County is fortunate to have multiple agencies that exist for the purpose of supporting youth. However, there is a tendency for our organizations to exist in silos and carry out out initiatives independent of one another. It is critical that our public agencies continue to not only build upon our community partnerships, but also leverage our resources and deepen interagency partnerships.

Collaboration is essential to effective use of funding, efficient use of staff, communicating and aligning priorities and initiatives, eliminating misconceptions and building trust and relationships across our organizations. It is imperative that we continue finding ways to work together on behalf of students and avoid duplication of service despite whatever bureaucratic or self-imposed obstacles might exist.

The good news is that we are making significant progress in the area of interagency partnerships. HCOE has and will most certainly continue to play a critical role in acting as the conduit for bridging gaps and capitalizing on opportunities.

Garry Eagles

NCJ: What do you see as the strengths of the educational system in Humboldt County?

Garry Eagles: In education, we often talk about the three R's: "Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic" as the "Basics" in education. However, it is the fourth "R" that is actually the most important element that contributes to student success: "Relationships."

The nurturing environment able to be fostered throughout our schools is a key strength. Small schools have the edge in terms of teachers and administrators being able to know their students well. The smaller class sizes in our schools compared to larger urban and suburban areas in this state offer the advantage of greater individualization of instruction. Community involvement is observed to be higher and more personal locally.

Then, of course, is the observation that families in small rural communities are better known for their generational connection to a school. Given the challenges many of our children face, such as poverty, isolation and trauma, we might expect that they would not compete well when compared to their peers across the state. This is certainly not the case. Just look at how well our students have performed over the years when placed in head-to-head competition with students from other regions in Science Fair, History Day, Spelling Bee and in automotive, agricultural, culinary and music competitions. Our students often walk away with the highest awards.

Complementing our schools' capacity to foster critical relationships is that our teachers also demonstrate incredible passion in being innovative and forward thinking. We hear all the time about "being behind the Redwood Curtain" living in Humboldt County. And I remind people, "All the great shows on Broadway begin behind a curtain." Pull the curtain back on Humboldt County's classrooms and you will be exposed to some of the very best opportunities for student learning taking place anywhere. As I travel to other parts of the state to observe what is emerging elsewhere in education, I often walk away realizing we are many times ahead of the curve and just unaware that we were actually setting trends.

NCJ: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing local educators, students and parents?

GE: Just as an individual's strengths are often his or her most critical areas of vulnerability, the same applies to our schools. Small rural schools and districts are our strength but they are at risk. The new fiscal model for education launched four years ago in California has moved the needle in the right direction in terms of supporting more local control and decision making.

However, the actual monies received through the funding model itself are becoming less adequate to meet the needs of our small districts as the years pass because the model was designed to support schools with student enrollments that are much larger and more concentrated. Without recognition from our state's political leaders that rural schools need more resources on a per-student basis than other areas, I can foresee districts being forced to close schools, bus students considerably longer distances and eventually consolidate — actions that have just the opposite effect on community identity and autonomy.

NCJ: Looking back at your tenure as superintendent of schools, what are you most proud of?

GE: When I initially ran for office in 2001, I identified five vision statements that served as my platform: One, developing a responsive county office array of services; two, increasing cost efficiencies; three, ensuring education played a more active role in local and regional economic development; four, helping more of our students pursue higher education and lifelong learning; and, five, creating an organizational culture modeled on the principle of continuous improvement. As I look back, I am most proud of having kept true to those "promises."

First and foremost are the people we've been able to attract to the county office. They are well qualified, committed to providing responsive customer service and, yes, also believe in the principle of continuous improvement. You can have the finest programs available but if you don't have the right people in place, the programs will not produce the results desired.

As far as programs and services go, I am proud of the partnerships we've developed in pursuit of the Decade of Difference Initiative goals of improving the graduation rate, increasing the number of students going on to some form of post-secondary education and stimulating young people to think entrepreneurially and to connect with their communities. We are now seeing data attesting to the value and success of this work over the last seven years.

I am also proud of the work that HCOE staff have performed in providing high quality special education and alternative education programs; in being able to connect our isolated rural schools to the high speed internet; in providing state award-winning environmental programs and model arts education. And it is certainly a point of pride in being able to say that HCOE staff are recognized leaders in early childhood education, school readiness, and in child/family trauma-informed practices.

NCJ: What business do you feel you're leaving unfinished?

GE: Advocating on behalf of rural counties and the needs of small districts is a never-ending priority. As long as the more densely populated areas of the state are able to elect more voices in Sacramento, we have to bring louder voices to the table.

NCJ: If you could give incoming Superintendent Hartley any words of advice, what would they be?

GE: The best advice I could give Superintendent Hartley is the same advice my mentors gave me: "A successful superintendent is one who hires the best people, shares with them a vision, supports their work, and then gets out of their way while they achieve the seemingly impossible."

NCJ: What does Humboldt County as a whole have to do to take better care of its youth and what should HCOE's role be in that?

GE: We need to recognize that the future of our communities sits in today's classrooms. Sad to say, but I believe my generation, and the generation that immediately followed, have been far too self-serving and immediate gratification oriented and thus have failed to put children's needs first.

All adults must commit to providing drug abuse- and trauma-free home environments and stable family support systems to enable our children to have hope for their future and the self-confidence to succeed. As an organization, HCOE must continue the work to build strong interagency partnerships that focus on addressing the health of children and families, including physical, mental and emotional well-being, all of which are essential for academic and life success. No one agency or organization can do everything that is required.

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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