Winters Superintendent is up for the challenge

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The pandemic was officially declared a national emergency on March 13, 2020. In April of that same year Winters Joint Unified School District trustees approved hiring Diana Jiménez as the school district’s new Superintendent of schools.

The Express sat down with Jiménez in her office to discuss the past, current and future school years.

With 31 years in public education, Jiménez has been a teacher, principal, administrator, chief academic officer and director of educational services. She said these positions have prepared her with the necessary background to become superintendent.

Typically, the first year as a superintendent in a new district is spent learning about the organization, relationship building and gaining an understanding of the various systems, Jiménez said. This past school year was unconventional with COVID-19 and presented several unique challenges, such as creating a remote online instruction delivery program.

“That was a big challenge last year, but I’m happy to say I think we have great staff who work enormously hard to provide the best instruction for students,” Jiménez said.

“I can’t imagine being a school superintendent during a pandemic, let alone a new superintendent in a new district,” said Board of Trustees President Carrie Green. “Superintendent Jiménez has embraced our community, her role, and all the responsibilities that come along with it, with unwavering passion and grace.”

Challenges brought on by the pandemic were “all pretty much new for superintendents in California,” Jiménez said.

“We’ve all had to learn together, everything from one-time funding that came our way to new legislation about tracking students online to make sure they’re engaged,” Jiménez said.

During a June Board of Trustees’ retreat, board members set goals for the superintendent for the 2021-22 school term. Jiménez said her goals start with, “What are we going to do to increase student achievement and get results?”

The Board of Trustees’ enumerated goals and achievement methods focused on four areas:

1. Promoting high expectations for student achievement.

2. Promoting professional development, growth and improvement for admin leaders, teachers and support staff.

3. Developing a responsible budget to provide a quality education while ensuring fiscal responsibility.

4. Enhancing communications with community groups and parents while providing positive public relations.

A tool used by educators and parents alike to obtain important information on individual schools, districts and statewide performance assessments is available online by visiting the Dept. of Education’s “California School Dashboard” website at www.caschooldashboard.org

The pandemic resulted in a state law that suspended reporting of assessment data for 2020. According to the Dashboard, in 2019, the last year reported, the district performed below state standards in math, English arts and college/career preparedness.

This past June, Green noted that during her seven years on the board some 60-70 percent of students did not perform at grade level in English and math.

When asked about this, Jiménez said, “We can always improve” and added that she would be the first to admit that improvement is a priority. “It’s our business,” she stressed and “at the end of the day we have more work to do, but the students are more than just that one number.”

In 2020, a quarter of the district’s 1,556 students were English Learners (EL), a drop of five percent from 2019. An EL is a student whose primary language is not English and whose English proficiency is below that of peers whose primary language is English.

Jiménez, a former EL herself, said this is an area “dear to my heart.” Asked if EL students affected the district’s overall assessment data, she said their scores are initially lower. However, she said research shows it takes five to seven years to become proficient in a new language.

EL students are doing two things simultaneously – learning a new language while also learning course content. Once students transition from EL and are reclassified as Fluent English Proficient (FEP), Jiménez said, “those students outperform everybody else in the district.”

In line with the Superintendent’s goals, the district hired an EL Specialist whose charge is to look at programs and services to ensure EL students are provided the instruction and support they need to be successful. Also added this year, as the result of a grant, the district hired a Parent Engagement Coordinator, someone who will be doing parent outreach.

In 2019, the high school graduation rate reported on the Dashboard was 84.2 percent, slightly below the statewide rate of 85.8 percent. The reported graduation rate in 2017 was 92.4 percent but it has hovered in the mid-eighties percent since then. Jiménez said the district is working to improve the graduation rate by offering two sessions of summer school so students can take courses to recover their credits.

Just when the world thought it had a handle on COVID-19 and the 2021-22 school year started with in-class instruction, the Delta variant arrived. Jiménez noted the school year started with the hope that things would “look a little more normal,” but they have had to go virtual with non-classroom activities, such as Back-To-School Night, to protect students and staff.

Asked if the turnover of several key staff positions, in some cases twice since her arrival, was an issue she said the district doesn’t have a problem maintaining key staff positions and when opportunities present themselves employees move on. However, she emphasized that the district works strategically by starting the recruitment process early and by ensuring that a transition plan is in place for projects and timelines for the new employee to step into.

Jiménez said she has good relationships with the trustees, PTA, teachers and parents and emphasized that transparency leads to positive relationships. She said she couldn’t speak highly enough of parents and the community and observed, “it’s really evident they’re our partners.”

“Under her leadership, I feel that WJUSD has remained focused on what is in the best interest of our staff, our scholars and our families,” Green said.

Trustee Everardo Zaragoza said in an email, “She understands the unique needs of our district; we are very fortunate to have her.”

In closing, Jiménez declared, “this is a great place to work!”

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