LocationAlhambra , CA
It is the first day of school in the Alhambra United School District and it has been a busy morning for Superintendent Denise R. Jaramillo.
She’s visited nearby campuses to greet teachers, staff and students and now she’s in the district headquarters on Mission Road holding meetings with staff and greeting visitors.
The AUSD headquarters building reflects the nature of the district as a whole. A converted beer distributing facility, it is functional and efficient but not lavish by any means. Jaramillo’s first floor office is located between the large auditorium where the Board of Education holds its public meetings and the private conference room where board members confer in closed session. The symbolism can’t be missed.
Jaramillo is starting her third year as superintendent of the district, which has more than 16,000 students on 18 campuses. The cities of Alhambra and Monterey Park provide a majority of the school population but students also come from Rosemead and San Gabriel. And there are permit attendees from a variety of other districts as well.
She manages a $200 million general operating budget along with millions in categorical and bond funding beyond that. The district’s payroll is $11 million a month, which means keeping an eye on cashflow.
She is, it seems, the CEO of a challenging educational enterprise. The diverse nature of what she deals with underscores that point.
“In any given day, I could deal with real estate issues, I could deal with finance issues, I could deal with student discipline, I could deal with student safety, I could deal with a textbook or curricular issue. It’s very broad,” she says of her job. “ And for a lot of it, I’m at the 10,000 foot elevation, working with people on the ground.”
At district headquarters and in the field, the management apparatus seems lean and engaged. That management team—including five assistant superintendents, principals and assistant principals, custodial supervisors and secretaries— totals around 80 for the district’s 18 campuses, 13 K-8, and five high schools.
Inclusive and Empowering
Jaramillo’s management style seems inclusive, and empowering. She seems pleased to stay in the background and let her assistant superintendents and directors do their jobs and get a measure of credit for their efforts
The Alhambra district as a whole is continually receiving awards both for academic excellence and for innovative programs like its nationally known “Gateway to Success.” While obviously pleased with these honors, she’s quick to point out that they are a team effort of teachers, students, parents, administrators, staff and the school board.
There is always hope and anticipation on the first day of school, and Jaramillo is looking forward to initiatives either being continued or implemented this year. She seems especially pleased to be overseeing the first stages of a $259 million bond measure passed by Alhambra voters in 2016 focusing on safety and security measures that will, in phase one over a three-year period, allow for the earthquake retrofitting of classrooms, removal of asbestos and lead paint, upgrading fire safety systems, upgrading playground safety, improving classrooms science labs and computer systems and upgrading classroom and instructional technology.
This bond funding and the considerable help of the Alhambra Educational Foundation, which chips in between $200,000 and $300,000 annually, is vital in a district where enrollment has declined over the last few years meaning that AUSD, like most public school districts in California, is receiving substantially less state funding.
And less one think that her total focus is on the administration, she is still an educator at heart as she talks about the school year
“Instructionally, we’re really looking at how to deliver services to all kids, but more specifically now to those with learning disabilities. There’s been a trend in our industry to cluster special education students on various campuses or specific locations. But we’re really coming to the belief that regardless of one’s learning ability there’s something to be said about being educated in your home school and making friends in the neighborhood. We’re looking at how we instruct our special ed kids so they can be successful. This means general education teachers have to be prepared to have them in the classroom with special ed support. A lot of training has to go on to accomplish this goal.”
Jaramillo has been with Alhambra Unified for 33 years and she remembers the time not that long ago when the student population totaled 21,000-22,000. One of her first administrative jobs was as an elementary principal at Northrup School. In those days the student population was 1,100. Today it is about 500.
So in this era of budgetary challenges and declining enrollment, brought about by lower birthrates and housing affordability, she’s asked how she manages.
“One decision at a time,” she says.
Tough Calls on Funding
But she also concedes that her role involves some tough calls – many of them on the topic of funding.
“The problem is that on almost every call you make, a good argument can be made on the opposite side of the decision.”
She gives the school board, led by Board President Robert L. Gin with over 16 years on the panel, a huge amount of credit for sound planning to keep the financial pipeline steady and flowing.
“They have a very shared focus on what’s right for the kids. Even in the good money times, they know that you just don’t go spending. You keep things really gradual and you build up that fund balance despite the pressure to spend it down. They put money aside because they know the hard times come,” Jaramillo says.
That financial philosophy means that “the district has scaled back some expenditures this year.”
“There are fewer administrators out there this year. We’ve reduced some front office staff. We haven’t laid anyone off, but we’ve just chosen to not fill positions through natural attrition,” Jaramillo says.
She also credits the Alhambra Teachers Association, with its 950 members, and its leaders President Tammy Scorcia and Executive Director Terry Skotnes with contributing to a constructive, solutions first environment to issues of mutual concern.
“I have a lot of respect for Tammy and Terry. We sit in different chairs and see things from different views, but I do believe we have the ability to assume the other side’s perspective for a minute and look for a solution that works. We have more in common than we don’t.”
But she adds, that wasn’t always the case in the district when years ago the tensions between AUSD and teachers were palpable and there were threats of work stoppages. These days, she says, ATA leaders as well as the AUSD management team up to solve problems before they get out of hand.
“Teachers aren’t our problem,” she adds. “They’re the solution to the problems we have. Listen to them. Professionally they deserve to be paid well and be in good working environment. And that’s what this board sees. The board does its best to deliver that because we know that the return comes to our kids, and that’s what we are all aiming to do.”
A Challenge and a Strength
Part of the challenge, which Jaramillo also sees as a strength, is managing a district where 75% of the students qualify financially for free or reduced-cost lunch programs and another 70% of the student body falls under the heading of economically disadvantaged.
“One of the strengths of having such a large population qualify for the free or reduced lunch program is that it forced us to really embrace the concept of a free public education,” she says. “You can go to areas that have money, and they rely heavily on the notion that the family will pay for that. We haven’t been able to do that in AUSD, so we’ve had to figure out really how to deliver programs and services that get to everybody regardless of their ability to pay. We’ve built partnerships with the community. We rely on city government but also on faith based community out there. We work with them to help with food insecurity and shelter. We’ve invested, we have counselors here. When I started in the district, there were no counselors at the elementary schools but now we are working with families in elementary schools to connect them with services.”
And, of course, she adds “You don’t get every one but the ones you get – it means the world to them.”
Asked to speak to the value of having such a diverse student population in the district, Jaramillo says that “it builds better children that you have to learn to understand that yours is not the only perspective in the world, and what better time to learn that when you’re five years old starting school? I think this community is very accepting of difference. Whether it’s socioeconomic or ethnic or religious or cultural or whatever it is. We build tolerance and understanding of differences.”
Jaramillo smiles a bit when talking about the diversity issue because diversity is all she has ever known.
She grew up in Monterey Park, attended elementary school at Garvey School, Hillcrest, Garvey Middle School and then graduated from Mark Keppel High School. Her father, a retired engineer for the telephone company, still lives in the home she grew up in. She completed her student teaching in nearby Montebello before joining AUSD.
She says her now late mom, was “not an educator by training but was one by inclination.” She was a career PTA mom, Jaramillo says, and stayed long after I was out of school. “I see her fingerprints around the district all the time on programs started then that are still current.”
“My world was filled with books,” she says of her childhood. “I probably had more books than you can imagine. I don’t remember a time without having books. I don’t remember a time not having a chalkboard in my bedroom and playing with my stuffed animals.”
After graduating from Mark Keppel, she went on to Cal State, Los Angeles where she earned a Bachelor of Art’s degree in Child Development. She went to Pepperdine for her master’s degree in Educational Administration and later earned a Chief Business Official Certificate from the University of Southern California.
“I fell in love with the business end and how it can really influence education,” she says of her experience at USC.
Joined the District in 1987
She joined the district as a classroom teacher in 1987, but knew early on that she was drawn to “bigger organizational kinds of things. I loved finance.” After her early years as a classroom teacher, she was a teacher in the Gifted and Talented Education program (GATE). In 1994, she took her first administrative assignment and since that time has served as Elementary Assistant Principal, Elementary Principal, Coordinator of Special Projects, Director of K-12 Curriculum and Instruction and Director of Fiscal Services. Before taking the superintendent’s post she was, for nine years, Assistant Superintendent of Financial Services.
As the conversation is coming to a close, she’s asked if there is anything about her job that might be surprising to readers.
She weighs this question for a minute and responds in a very nuanced way.
“I do think people I run into believe the superintendent has the power to make things happen and with some immediacy. But there is often a lot of complexity and study that goes into even the simplest of decisions.”
“I’m the face and voice of a big army of folks, that have a lot of ground experience in working in many different areas. We study, we look. We make decisions carefully.”
And then she’s off to the next meeting, the next decision, the next potential challenge. School is in session again and so is she.