Before school starts, a talk with the Alhambra Unified School District Superintendent

Perez at her desk | Photo by Jennifer Smith

Donna Pérez began her career with the Alhambra Unified School District as a teacher at Northrup Elementary School in 1969. In the more than four decades since then, she has climbed to the District's top office of Superintendent. The Alhambra Source visited her in her office to ask about goals and managing budget cuts, vaccination policies, and the achievement gap.

What are the three most important issues facing the Alhambra Unified School District right now?

I think foremost in our minds is to improve student achievement. We’ve been very successful with that. There are many ways to measure that, but the one everyone looks at is the improvement of API [Academic Performance Index] scores as well as AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress]. Our scores steadily climb.

The budget is on everyone’s minds and it plays an important role. We spend a lot of time making sure that our district is not only fiscally solvent, but is placing its resources in the best ways possible for student achievement to continue to rise.

Thirdly, looking both at our staff and our students, we’re always keeping racial equity in perspective.

Stephen Perry awards Perez an Alhambra Education Foundation honor | photo by Cecilia Garcia

What makes AUSD different from neighboring school districts?

We’re a district that puts people first as opposed to politics. We are a district that has built the idea that we’re here for our students. When we work with our new teachers, we spend a lot of time on professional development and good teaching strategies. This district is unique because it cares about its mission and it cares about the people.

What are your goals for the upcoming school year?

We have board goals, superintendent and cabinet goals. From those goals, the schools will develop their own goals. First and foremost, will be to raise student achievement and be sure that we are fiscally prudent. We have a lot of construction going on. In fact, every single school in our district is involved in construction because of passing school bonds.

How do you choose which programs will be cut? Will there be any more cuts before the upcoming 2011-12 school year?

When we choose what can be cut, our cabinet looks at the budget and takes a three-year look at where we need to be. We take a look at the amount that may need to be cut and any reductions that need to be made. We then go out and meet with groups. We usually have night meetings where we will invite parents, community members or businesses and get input from them on what is working for their students and ideas they have for our cuts. I link with groups like Rotary and Chamber of Commerce and we talk to them as well about the way they see our schools functioning.

Will there be future cuts? We don’t know. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. We are budgeting with the idea that there may be mid-year cuts. As we look forward, we have made sure that we have an ending fund balance that’s big enough to carry us through any additional cuts that may be made in the middle of the school year. We’ll have to wait and see what comes through with the state budget.

What is the future of adult education in Alhambra?

Adult education, for the coming school year, is not going to exist and that’s very unfortunate. We do feel that it’s a service to our community and it’s a service that we like to provide. We have run a very large program for our adults in the past. We had to weigh between offering the service to our adults as opposed to continuing the strong programs for our K-12 students. The decision was made that instead offering that program for our adults we needed to put that money towards our K-12 students. But, we do intend and have acted accordingly to be able to bring that back when the state budget improves.

What are your thoughts on the achievement gap between Asian American and Latino students?

Every subgroup that we have ethnically has to perform at a certain rate for being proficient. We are always constantly saying what groups need to catch up now, what groups are falling behind. We have shown some steady slow gains for our Hispanic students, but we’re always working. We are constantly looking at the research and different organizations to see if they have some of the answers we might not have yet, what we can do for our teachers and what we can do for those kids that may be struggling.

What challenges face vaccinations?

We’re making personal contact right now with those families that have not been vaccinated. We’re very happy that AB14 extended that for a month. So we have a month after our kids get into school to make sure that everyone gets vaccinated. We have offered our own free clinics, we’ve done seven of them and we have more coming up in August towards the start of school. We’re constantly personally contacting those families that have not turned their vaccinations in.

What would you like the residents of Alhambra to know that I haven’t asked?

We have some great academies at our high school and they are actually sponsored through California Partnership Academies. They are academies that promote academics and career technical education. That’s something that we’re proud of to be able to offer our students. We have five academies: green construction, international business, architecture, medical careers and business technology. We’re still looking at adding more.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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