Jason Yamashiro, Superintendent, Old Adobe Union School District
by Laura Burgos, Ed.L.D. candidate
May 24, 2017
Born to parents who met at the University of California’s Berkeley campus while handcuffed to a table during a student protest, Jason Yamashiro, Ed.L.D.’14, developed a passion for equity at an early age. His father served on local school boards throughout his secondary and post-secondary school years, and Yamashiro attended public schools his entire life. The oldest of three children, Yamashiro spent his early years working at summer camps and afterschool programs. After his first formal teaching in Oakland Public Schools, he realized that his leadership in the classroom could translate into leading adults, where he could serve as an even greater lever for change.
Yamashiro is in his third year as superintendent in the Old Adobe Union School district located in southern Sonoma County. The district serves 1,800 students. Over 40% of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and at least 25% of the students are English Language Learners.
What experiences shaped your passion to pursue leadership from the classroom to the district office?
I started teaching 6th grade in Oakland and loved it. Honestly, I only left because I was told I would be a good principal. Through my observations of principals who exemplified strong instructional leaders, it became very clear early on that a good principal could help transform an entire school. This motivated me to consider it early in my career. I thought my skill set would be a good fit for the position. My career as a principal began at an elementary school in Berkeley where I enjoyed 15 years of leadership. I realized that I loved being a principal just as much as teaching. That’s when I began considering a superintendency. I always thought that schools are where we raise our children together. But I always felt that we could do better.
Do you think the superintendent’s role is the greatest lever for change?
When I was a principal, I certainly didn’t feel that way. I rarely saw the superintendent at my school site. I also rarely saw anyone in that role really make a difference in the Bay Area. It was hard to imagine how a district leader would make a difference in what was happening on the ground. I ultimately wanted to get into the position to see if I could prove this theory wrong. My experience as a superintendent thus far has left me feeling very optimistic. We have made tremendous progress in a short time in Old Adobe Union. Enrollment is up significantly, student achievement is up sharply, we are implementing several positive instructional changes simultaneously, as well is making other improvements. If I were in a larger district, I might answer the question differently because you can’t make changes in the same way or at the same pace, but I believe there is always a lot of potential that hasn’t been actualized. My approach is that the school site is the unit of power. Yet, I am convinced that you can’t have 1,000 schools all on their own. There is value in the district and the most important is the balance between school site autonomies and district leadership and support.
The Old Adobe Union School District embarked on a unique approach to school development under Yamashiro’s leadership. Four of the district’s five schools had transitioned to charter schools just a couple of years before he started in his role. Under his leadership the unique theme of each charter has become more developed, strengthening the educational and community experience.
Why did the school board decide to transition to a mostly charter school district? What were the desired outcomes?
The board had a few different reasons for doing so. First and foremost, we wanted to be able to successfully market our schools. We exist in a very competitive region and there is a lot of movement among families due to school choice. Secondly, we saw a real opportunity for school staff to work together in developing interesting programs. In addition, there was certainly a financial incentive to do so. Districts receive supplemental funding for receiving students from other districts. After suffering nearly twenty years of declining enrollment, we needed a unique selling point.
Transitioning the district has certainly proven to be successful, with enrollment up 15% over the past three years. In addition to enrollment, what other successes are you most proud of?
I am proud of our improvement around student learning and instructional changes. There is plenty to celebrate regarding our technology innovation, fiscal management, and facility maintenance. However, all of these successes are related to the work we are doing around student learning. I am always reminding myself of this.
As a district outsider initially, what have been the greatest challenges you faced in your work?
This work requires a great deal of collaboration, and it can be hard to do so at a high level when we don’t know each other. When I arrived, part of my entry plan included being in classrooms throughout the fall. Students knew who I was early in my tenure. Currently, I meet with principals one-on-one each week and also as a group. Larger districts have innovation hubs. People think smaller, siloed districts can’t change because of isolation and veteran teaching staff. Yet, this has not been my experience at all. Teachers have been open to learning new practices, including instructional technology. Teachers, even longstanding teachers, are interested in improving practice in the service of children.
At your level of responsibility, how are you able to keep a pulse on what is happening on the ground?
I prioritize being in schools every week. Spending time seeing what’s happening helps me understand how our initiatives are going. I allocate far more time for school visits and less time on group planning, preparing board documents, and conducting community outreach.
Early in my career I learned that it was not unusual for superintendents of large districts to spend 40% of their time on school board related items. Unfortunately, the inability to prioritize instructional leadership is one of the reasons why there is so much failure with districts at this level. Superintendents must be involved in running the district in a more direct way closer to the classroom. Otherwise, how do you organize your cabinet and the work to be done in schools?
Early on in his career, it was hard to imagine how a superintendent could impact the work being done on the ground. However, through redefining the priorities of the role, Superintendent Yamashiro is placing teaching and innovation at the forefront and driving the change that is occurring in the classroom.