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Interview with John Scanlan, the incoming Alhambra assistant superintendent for student and employee welfare

Photo courtesy of Alhambra Unified School District.


Alhambra , CA United States

Mark Keppel High School Principal John Scanlan has worked for the Alhambra Unified School District for 20 years and is intimately familiar with Gateway to Success, the district’s nationally recognized mental health program. He started out as a special ed teacher at Alhambra High School and then taught social studies for English language learners and coached baseball at San Gabriel High School. He later became San Gabriel’s athletic director and then assistant principal of student services nine years ago. Scanlan has since served in a variety of assistant principal positions, including heading up San Gabriel High School’s counseling program before becoming Mark Keppel’s principal three-and-a-half years ago.

This summer, Scanlan will take over Laurel Bear’s position as assistant superintendent of student and employee welfare. He spoke to the Alhambra Source about what he plans to do with Gateway to Success.

I suppose that being a special education teacher is pretty seamless with running Gateway to Success. I was wondering if you could talk about that and your interactions with the program prior to becoming the assistant superintendent.

So when I started teaching, Laurel Bear was actually the assistant principal of guidance at the school I was teaching at. So I’ve known her for 20 years and have been able to be around her for all of my time in Alhambra. I remember working with her when she was getting Gateway all started up and she was trying to figure out how to get it funded, what the mission was.

Just watching how the Gateway program has developed and been built up by Dr. Bear, it just expanded out beyond what the district provides, partnering with Alhambra PD, Monterey Park PD, YMCA, Tzu Chi Foundation, [Department of Mental Health], just kind of all these different prongs that now exist within the Gateway and the student employee welfare division. Being an assistant principal of student services [and] guidance and being a principal, I’ve had a lot of work that I’ve done with her, just with what’s happened on the various school sites I’ve been on. Having that direct interaction with her daily has helped me figured out what was going on at the division.

What in particular about Gateway to Success do you respond to and what prompted you to apply to this position?

I’m a strong believer that we have to take care of the overall needs of all of our students as much as possible. When I got into education, it was really mostly you deliver a curriculum and that’s the extent of your responsibility as an educator and under Laurel, we’ve kind of broken through that idea and we realize when we take care of the whole student, academic success comes along with it. Especially with what’s going on nowadays with Florida, it’s more in the news lately. But Laurel and Gateway were really ahead of the curve on that. There wasn’t a lot of talk about mental health a decade ago, and when she established Gateway, it was kind of an uphill climb. There were a lot of nonbelievers who felt like the school system — or at least us in particular — were overstepping our boundaries. I think she’s proven to be ahead of the curve in that regard in terms of taking care of the whole child. And that’s the part that appeals to me and that’s what I preach to my staff.

Teaching is not just about delivering instruction. It’s about providing that mentorship and providing that guidance to our kids and just being available to them to get them as many positive mentors and contacts as possible to maximize their success in the classroom and life in general. I don’t just think we have a responsibility to produce great students. We also have to produce well-rounded overall kids. Obviously Gateway is a big part of that.

What do you plan to do in this position in terms of new initiatives or the direction you want to take the program in?

I’m still kind of grasping everything that it does, the nuances and whatnot. And I’m also still running a school. [laughs] I’m trying to do one job at a time and start picking up another. Once I really get in there, I’ll be able to figure out what initiatives I may want to put in place. I think the big part is just to maintain, right now, what we have, and as we do that also look for things to build upon.

And we have to look at what the statistics tell us in terms of what’s happening, not just at our own schools, but trends locally, nationwide, what are some areas we can expand upon, in terms of providing services to our students. So I’m sure as I get more and more in there, I’ll get a more complete picture of where we are as a whole district, and that would better guide me in terms of figuring out what we need to build upon and what we need to expand into.

You mentioned Florida a little bit. After the Parkland shooting, there’s been all this talk about installing metal detectors. I know at [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School], they’re instituting clear backpacks, all these safety measures. In covering the National Walkout, [additional security measures] were mentioned in some of the assemblies I observed. From what I can tell, Gateway to Success has tried to get away a little from that. I know that [Laurel Bear] says, “We need kid detectors, not metal detectors.” I was wondering what you think of that and how much you think Gateway to Success has to emphasize those safety measures.

It’s a proactive approach to it, instead of waiting for a child to be in distress, because with the Florida shooter, there were a lot of telltale signs that this was a young man in distress. He had recent trauma in his life with his parents passing away. [He was] not motivated in school. He had been expelled. All those are telltale signs of someone who’s in a lot of distress and could potentially do something like he did. So in that regard, I agree with Laurel a hundred percent. We need to be more cognizant of who our kids are and make those connections and connect with them early and recognize who those students are who need that extra support.

In terms of security measures, it’s a tough balance between being a school and also trying to make things as safe as possible and that’s an evolving process. That’s not something we think we’re going to have a hundred percent of the answers on at all times. We’re constantly checking what our measures are, what our security looks like, what our safety measures are, what our plans are. Those need to constantly evolve. As we get more information, we see where more of the trends are going.

With Alhambra, we have all the different elementary schools and high schools and they all have their unique layouts. We also have to individualize it by school and see what the safety needs are at each of these individual schools. I know we have implemented systems in place, in terms of buzzing people in, you have to have an ID. We have our Raptor system, which all of our visitors have to get run through. We have campus supervisors. We have a lot of training, not just for our supervisor staff, but all of our staff in terms of recognizing, “Hey, there’s someone who doesn’t look like they belong here.” We need to say something. We’ve got a lot of great security measures in place already. But no matter how good we think they are, we’re always gonna look at them, and they’ll evolve as the times evolve. We’re never gonna be a hundred percent comfortable with where we are. We are always gonna look to get better.

The Board of Education passed a resolution asking Congress to pass laws to minimize the risk of gun violence and to even not prohibit research on that subject. In covering the walkout, it did seem like gun legislation and gun control was a little de-emphasized. I was wondering what you think in terms of how that plays into watching out for student mental health.

In terms of any political stances, I leave that to the board. They’re a political entity. We don’t introduce our own politics into any of those decisions. We look into what we think we control at the school level, in terms of safety, security, counseling, taking that proactive approach to making sure that all of our students are taken care of. I think there were a lot of messages during the walkouts and the subsequent March for Our Lives that happened this past weekend. We let our citizenry and our elected officials kind of take up those measures and we as a district just kind of focus on those things that we can control, the things that are within our power in terms of keeping other students safe.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m just really excited to be jumping into a position that has a lot of community outreach like this one does. We have a lot of districts that now come to us, because they don’t have a system like that in place, and here we are in Alhambra. We’ve had it for about a decade now. It’s exciting to be ahead of the curve. But we’re also mindful of our responsibility to help out our community partners, the districts that surround us. We’re very fortunate to have a great team as part of the Gateway program. It’s really exciting to me to have the opportunity to help lead the charge on that. Mark Keppel deserves a full-time principal too, so I’m trying to keep focused over there. It’s very exciting to be stepping in this opportunity and to attempt to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Bear. I know that us in the district are really going to miss her, and she’s gonna leave a huge void, which I’m gonna try to fill to the best of my abilities.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Updated March 30, 2018 at 6:26 p.m.

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