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Super Parlays with Local Press

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

August 31 -- A misadventure driving home after her first School Board meeting led to new School Superintendent Dianne Talarico’s first encounter with local students.

Her rental car died at Las Flores and she sat stunned, “cars whipping by...You’re a smart woman, you have a college education, think,” she told herself as she summoned the nerve to make a dash for the side of the road.

As she phoned for help, three young men approached her.

“Ma’am, you can’t leave your car there,” they told her. “This is an unsafe situation.” They took control, helped her move her car out of the road and took her home after a tow truck came.

It turned out they were three Malibu High seniors, Ted, Matt and Sean.

“It was a random act of kindness that they didn’t need to do,” Talarico said of the students. “Youth today get a bad rap,” but this incident shows “the conscience, the heart” of public school students that Talarico wants the public to know about.

The story was one of the anecdotes shared by Talarico Wednesday morning during the first of a series of breakfast press conferences hosted by the new superintendent.

Over bagels and fruit at the school district boardroom, the self-described “risk-taker” shared her impressions of her new home and her ambitions for local schools, and addressed a few of the hot button issues that have aroused controversy in recent years.

Anecdotal data is a large part of what Talarico is about. “I’m a hands-on person, a people person,” she said.

“Hard data is one thing, and then there’s reality,” she said. Comparing hard data to a snapshot, Talarico said she’s interested in studying “learning over time.”

To do that, she plans to spend a lot of time at school sites, showing up unannounced in the classrooms. She’ll be looking to see that all students are actively engaged and “find out how rigorous the lessons are.”

“All kids need to be stretched to their full capacity and potential,” said Talarico, who moved from Canton, Ohio, where she headed the local school district. “Our expectations have to get higher and higher.”

Public schools have an obligation to equip students to compete in a global economy, she said. “Our status as a superpower is in jeopardy.”

The former special education teacher, whose brother’s death at five days old inspired her to be “ultrasensitive,” said she was “passionate about providing learning opportunities” for all students, including those with special needs.

She included gifted students as a special needs group, talked about eliminating gender bias in the classroom and emphasized the importance of taking extra effort to see that all students have access to higher education.

In Ohio, Talarico spearheaded a project financed by the Gates Foundation that gave students whose parents hadn’t completed college a chance to take college classwork before leaving high school. Some graduated with six to 12 units, in addition to their high school diplomas, making it likelier that they’d go on to finish a four-year degree.

Talarico said she’d like to partner with local colleges and universities to set up a similar program here.

Only eight days into the job, Talarico made it clear that she has yet to “find out what the issues are,” but she’s sure that parents must play a central role.

“I’m coming from ‘we’re partners in educating your child,’” she said. “We have to have a win-win here.”

When asked about addressing the concerns of special education parents, Talarico pointed out that programs mandated by federal law only receive 40 percent of the funding they need.

“If you want to advocate, advocate at the level where the law came down from,” she said.

“I want to give the Cadillac version” of special education services, Talarico said, but she’s constrained by her “bank account.”

In response to recent criticisms by the Special Education District Advisory Committee of Tim Walker’s performance as Assistant Superintendent in charge of Special Education Services, Talarico said, “People ought to get their facts together before they publicly devalue staff who are trying to help our children.”

Talarico has recommended that Walker be given a new senior position in the District as Deputy Superintendent. Following the departure of Michael Matthews, Walker served as Interim Superintendent until Talarico was hired.

When asked about racial tension at Santa Monica High School, Talarico said she is personally supervising SAMOHI and John Adams. Later Wednesday, she planned to meet with a cross section of high school students – some of whom may have been involved in last year’s near-riot – to “channel…(student) leadership.”

The lone reporter from Malibu warned Talarico that Malibu parents are angry about an open trench at one of their schools and a tussle over the placement of new tennis courts that parents had raised $60,000 to build. Talarico joked that maybe she’d think twice about going to an upcoming barbecue in Malibu.

When asked about apparently conflicting sets of state test score statistics, particularly California Department of Education figures that seem to show falling math scores at Santa Monica High School, Talarico said she’s asked administrator Maureen Bradford to “tweak the data out a little more.”

The district needs clear figures to reach its goal of closing the achievement gap, she said, and after “a cursory glance…math is a concern” of Talarico’s. She plans to work intensively with high school teachers on the math curriculum.

“Math and science is a great concern, particularly as we’re preparing kids for a global society,” she added.

Though Talarico clearly warmed to her role as an educator, she was also enthusiastic about jumping in as the community gets ready to vote on a $268 million bond.

Calling it “déjà vu,” Talarico pointed out that she just finished a $178 million construction project in Ohio, as well as a multi-million high school construction project.

She joked that she’ll be back “wearing a hard hat and running a back hoe.” It’s not just a figure of speech – she actually did it, she said, “modeling for the girls.”

But if you want to see her in the next two weeks, look in the district’s classrooms. That’s where the district’s new “people-person” superintendent plans to be, getting to know her staff and students.

To get to work and back, Talarico -- who is renting an apartment in Malibu next door to the Mayor’s house -- will continue to enjoy her scenic ride on PCH.

“You can’t believe the smile on my face when I drive by the ocean in the morning,” said the Ohio native.

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