Shortly after her appointment on Aug. 26, 2022, as interim superintendent of the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District, Barbara Dill-Varga sat down for an interview with BenitoLink. At the time, the late-season heat wave was her biggest worry as it exposed the flaws in the district’s inadequate air conditioning systems, which left students sweltering as they did their best to study.
A little over a year later, Dill-Varga is six months into a three-year contract with the district as superintendent, the air conditioning issue is in the final stages of being resolved, and she is facing a new challenge that also offers opportunities: the possibility that San Juan Elementary will need to be almost entirely rebuilt because its proximity to an earthquake fault.
BenitoLink: Is there any news from the state regarding the seismic studies on the elementary school?
Dill-Varga: No. Last year, we were told we would know by Halloween, then it was by New Year’s, and here we are about a year later. I’ve been misled as to the date many times. I think it’s imminent and that within the next several weeks, we’ll know.
Are you working on the assumption that the campus will need to be rebuilt?
The state has all the data it needs from our architects, and they’re doing what’s called back-checking—they’re asking questions about some of the drawings, and the architects are giving them more information. This is all to determine, from the state’s perspective, if the various buildings need to be rehabbed or torn down. We’re proceeding like things are on track. We do know the multi-purpose room is going to be torn down, and we have approval for that.
What is going on in the meantime?
The board, before I got here, had started to set aside some funding for furniture replacement, and the San Juan school project has given us an opportunity to have new classrooms and new furniture. Our classrooms right now have furniture that’s archaic, and there’s some furniture at San Juan school that I swear their grandmothers had. The seats are pretty rigid and connected to the desks, which works against the teachers when they want to get kids in small groups, and it’s difficult to move the furniture around.
Does this come from the listening sessions with consultant David Jakes held earlier in the year?
Yes, it is our chance to reimagine learning spaces and also the teaching strategies that are necessary today that maybe weren’t as prevalent 30 years ago or 50 years ago. Things like how to work with kids in terms of cooperative learning groups or Socratic circles or other kinds of things that we can help teachers acquire the talent for. And you can do that if you’ve got the right kinds of learning spaces.
Can you give an example of this within the district?
We have a teacher at Aromas who is part of what’s called Building Thinking Classrooms, a mathematics pedagogy where you work with kids and groups and then they stand up together and use a whiteboard on the wall to work out some problem. And they’re talking about it with each other—how would they solve that problem, and they explore the different ways they could solve that problem. They gather their evidence on the whiteboard, and then they present that to the class. So they don’t just sit and watch the teacher at the front presenting information and showing them how to solve the problem.
How do you see this being applied at San Juan Elementary?
I see this as an opportunity to have a conversation about trying out, learning and implementing better instructional strategies. If we have a blank slate at San Juan school, perhaps we can see what we could do differently to support the different kinds of learning needs that kids have now. It’s going to be different for kindergarten than it is for 12th grade because smaller kids have different attention spans.
So in order to inform the massive purchase that will occur at San Juan school when we hopefully build those new classrooms there, I wanted to take this time before construction gets going to look at it from a different perspective because, eventually, we’ll be updating things in the other buildings, too. We want to figure out what works before we have that huge expenditure.
Has Jakes continued to work with the district on these changes?
In June and then again in August, he worked with some teachers across the grade span: kindergarten, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, special education and three teachers at the high school, including a science lab. They gave him input on how their classrooms operate and how they want to work with kids. He took lots of notes and visited their classrooms.
He came back to them in August and said, “Here’s my best suggestion on what your classroom could look like and the kinds of furniture that we now have available from vendors that could populate it. He gave them multiple views of two options, and he asked them to choose one. They could give him more input and tweak and revise it. Then he came back with a final draft around Aug. 20, and we started working with that.
When will you start implementing the changes?
By Dec. 16, which is the first day when the kids are gone for Christmas, the portables need to be emptied out, cleaned and repainted. Then the furniture will be delivered, and the teachers will learn how to configure it. Starting Jan. 9, which is the first day with kids, we’re going to run the pilot program to see what works and what doesn’t. The teacher can tell the kids, “Set the classroom up in Steinbeck mode,” and in 90 seconds, all the kids have arranged the desks for reading configuration. Maybe later that day or the next day, they need Hemingway mode, and maybe that’s a big Socratic Circle. And that way, the kids get to be owners of the shape of the classroom.
It’s been a year since you got hired. What did you think, coming into the job?
I think the thing that excited me about coming here was the feeling that I could be, in that moment, what they needed to kind of steady the ship. I know what my skill set is. I’m a question asker. I understand how to build teams and work on coalescing people around a vision. I could study the organization, build relationships, and assure people I was going to be here, that it’s going to be okay.
We have a goal to become a destination district again. I believe we were once, and we lost sight of that somehow. But you know, these changes are a way of having people understanding that we are going to be an innovative district, and we’re going to have some expectations about what that means. But we’re willing to support our teachers and we hope to get everyone—kids, teachers, and families—excited about what we are doing.
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