Ethan Stocks, principal of San Juan School. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Ethan Stocks, principal of San Juan School. Photo by Robert Eliason.

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When Ethan Stocks was appointed principal of San Juan School in July 2022, he was faced with the lingering effects of the pandemic and the challenges of reconnecting to his students as they returned from remote learning. As the year progressed, another major complication arose as talk of repairs to the school turned to the possibility that seismic studies still in progress would require the entire school to be rebuilt away from the San Andreas faultline.

Working closely with Aromas-San Juan Unified School District Superintendent Barbara Dill-Varga, Stocks looks forward not just being involved in the redesign of the school but in taking a new approach to classroom design, which aims to offer students more engaging learning experiences.

Stocks sat down with BenitoLink for an interview on Oct. 26 to discuss his first year on the job and what he feels the future of San Juan School holds for his students. San Juan School has an enrollment of over 300 students in Kindergarten through eighth grade.

BenitoLink: What did you think when you found out there was a chance that they might tear your school down?

Stocks: That it was such a big project and that it may be a complete rebuild certainly surprised me, but honestly, I have worked in a number of schools in a number of districts at this point in my career, and everywhere I’ve ever been, they’ve been doing something like that. So the idea that there’s going to be construction at your school is sort of a given and something that you learn to work around.

What do you think you’ve accomplished since you have been here? 

One thing that stands out is when I arrived here, we had gotten some pretty bad score reports from our state testing the previous year, and that disturbed me. Looking at the scores, they were not out of sync with what was happening across this county and across the state of California. That’s just where we were. 

I realized that we did not have a good metric to evaluate our progress throughout a school year to anticipate how we would perform on those tests. And so, identifying a tool that would allow us to collect that information and act on it was really important to me. I told Dr. Dill-Varga as soon as she came on that I wanted to use this tool called i-Ready, which is something that I’ve used in other districts and that I believe in and I think it’s effective. And she went for it.

And so, within the next month, we had it, and we started to implement it. It’s a program that collects information on students’ knowledge and skills in reading and math and also provides online lessons to help them master new skills. And it provides teachers with some resources to do some one-on-one or small group lessons with kids who need something special. I think that there is still a huge void and I think we made a little progress in our scores last year so I’m hopeful that it’s the beginning of kind of cobbling back to a point where we are achieving what we should be.

Do you think that the school is still suffering from the effects of COVID?

I think COVID was a generational shift in a lot of ways. I think I will not experience this again in my career, hopefully, and I think that in a lot of ways, we are still in a recovery mode. You know, since I became a teacher, they were talking about a teacher shortage. Well, COVID happened, and then all of a sudden, I feel like that teacher shortage arrived, and it first was evident in the fact that we couldn’t get substitute teachers at the time. 

I thought well, it’s COVID, they don’t want to expose themselves by coming to school, right?  But then they never really came back, at least not in the numbers I was used to. We had teaching positions that we couldn’t fill. And so I think that’s a symptom of COVID, that it sort of accelerated something that was coming already. 

Are you finding some of the kids having a problem socializing after being isolated?

You see little pockets of kids just standing on their own, but I think it isn’t an isolation thing. I think it’s more like not being able to gel in certain ways. I think maybe it’s a bit of stubbornness or just inflexibility in working with other kids, a little like only child syndrome, that is transcendent in every kid. It’s more like a dynamics issue between kids in a classroom than it really is about isolation or or anything like that.

To some degree, they’ve sort of forgotten how to interact with one another. Or maybe kids are more sensitive to when those interactions don’t go well. We are still figuring that out, and something I would list among my successes as well is that we have a social-emotional learning program called Second Step that we’ve adopted to try to address some of those things about how you relate to your peers and talking about things like bullying and how to advocate for yourself and all that kind of thing.I think it’s something that we kind of knew we needed to be working on in education, but then COVID just brought to the forefront.

Are you finding any discipline problems in the readjustment from COVID?

We don’t have many serious student discipline issues at this school. We have the same kinds of things that come up everywhere. But I felt like I wanted to be more thoughtful about our discipline policies and more kind of restorative in our discipline policies. I really encourage teachers to utilize different kinds of strategies in their classrooms. 

Many of them are starting by giving students the opportunity to kind of share what’s going on with them or talk about something that may be occupying their thoughts that they need to get off their chest. I think that that builds connections with the peers they have in class, and also, teachers learn more about them. I’ve tried in instances where students are having conflict with one another to sort of facilitate a restorative conversation, and that’s been interesting for me.  Not flawless, but interesting.

[Editor’s note: According to the California Department of Education, three for the four San Juan School students suspended in the 2021-22 school year were involved in violent incidents. No students were expelled that year.]

Did anything good come out of COVID?

One good thing that’s come out of California is they’ve recognized that every student needs a free lunch, and they were just going to give it to them. All that talk about making sure you qualify is kind of out the window, at least for now. Maybe we are more aware and more inclined to teach the whole student and try to provide many levels of support in many different areas to families more so than we were before. And I don’t think we’re necessarily doing that perfectly yet, but I think that that is probably the direction we’re headed as a profession.

Do you think about what you learned last year or what you did not get done? 

If you’re in education and you’re not doing that, I think that’s kind of problematic. I think if you’re sitting there thinking I’ve arrived and I have really nailed it with nothing to improve upon, you’re probably doing it wrong.

What kind of response are you getting from parents?

You know, folks are getting involved. I think they see that something’s happening here, that there’s a spark that maybe wasn’t here before. I don’t take responsibility for that by any stretch of the imagination, and I think that maybe I’m more the beneficiary of that than the instigator, but I think people are feeling pretty positive about things.

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