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Former Mt. Diablo High teacher ascends to highest state education office

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, January 3rd, 2011 at 7:26 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

Tom Torlakson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, speaks at his inauguration at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord.

Tom Torlakson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, speaks at his inauguration at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord.

By Theresa Harrington

Newly inaugurated State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson inspired cheers from supporters after he took the oath of office this morning.

But Torlakson and many members of the crowd in the Mt. Diablo High School gym acknowledged that it will take a lot of hard work to bring California’s public schools back to their glory days.

Still, the mood was optimistic. Torlakson promised to work to accomplish his educational goals with longtime friends and colleagues such as Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez; state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord; and state Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who is also a former district high school teacher. (She taught English at Concord High before her election to the Concord City Council.)

“The most important job in California is being a teacher,” Torlakson told his enthusiastic audience. “Every chance I get as state Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will be putting a spotlight on teachers.”

Torlakson previously taught science and world history at Mt. Diablo High.

The event included the following speakers:
Gary Eberhart, Mt. Diablo school board President, welcomed audience
De’Shawyn Woolridge, Torlakson’s political science student at Los Medanos College, led the Pledge of Allegiance
Tim Sbranti, teacher and Dublin Mayor, master of ceremonies
Robert Lualhati, Torlakson’s former coach from Westmoor High
Liane Cismowski, vice principal and a teacher at Mt. Diablo High
Araceli Ramirez, former Torlakson student who is now a lawyer
Anthony Amerson, former Torlakson student from West Pittsburg
Patti Waldhaus, former cross country runner

In addition, the following school groups participated in the event:

– Mt. Diablo High School Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) performed the Presentation of the Colors;

– Ladies First, the award-winning Concord High School Choral Department barbershop group, performed the national anthem;

– The Dublin High School Jazz Band, performed before and after the ceremony;

– Mt. Diablo High Serendipity Restaurant (a Regional Occupational Program), students and faculty catered the reception.

Eberhart often accuses state legislators of saying they support education, although they approve education cuts. He told me he appreciates Torlakson’s work to bring millions of dollars to low-performing schools in the district through the Quality Education Improvement Act (QEIA).

“I hound every one of our legislators,” Eberhart said. “I endorsed Tom and I think we have to work together for him to succeed. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let up on him.”

Eberhart said he has Torlakson’s cell phone number programmed into his phone. He appreciates Torlakson’s willingness to speak to him directly, he said, instead of passing him along to staffers.

Miller said he looks forward to working with Torlakson as Congress begins to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the next few months.

“He has a wealth of experience and understanding,” Miller said.

Walnut Creek restaurant owner Cindy Gershen, who is working on a healthy food initiative in the Martinez school district, said she’s hoping Torlakson will help push for healthier foods in all schools. Torlakson has already made inroads in this area, as the chairman and founder of the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness.

“You can’t have smart kids if you don’t have smart food,” Gershen said.

Students and teachers said they were honored to be present during the event. Serendipity academy student Kaylee Brink, 17, said she appreciated Torlakson’s emphasis on career education.

“I work in the restaurant three days a week,” said the 17-year-old, who wants to become a professional baker. “I think it definitely helps because you have more of a support group. Our academy is like a big family.”

Cismowski said her students benefitted from hearing Ramirez talk about coming to this country from Mexico and eventually graduating from Harvard.

“My kids can do that,” Cismowski said, beaming.

She added that Torlakson is welcome back to Mt. Diablo High anytime.

“We always have a classroom open for him,” she said, “if and when he wishes to return.”

Torlakson’s new communications director is Paul Hefner, who previously worked at Ogilvy Public Relations and told me he did a short stint for the Valley Times many years ago.

Craig Cheslog — who served as Torlakson’s superintendent election political director and as a district director in Torlakson’s Assembly Office — will be Principal Advisor to the State Superintendent, handling strategic initiatives and managing the Executive Office.

Gloria Omania, who quit her job in Torklakson’s Assembly office to work full-tome on his campaign, said she will likely continue working on education issues, such as the Healthy Kids Initiative.

Here’s Torlakson’s bio, provided by Hefner:

“State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Biography

Tom Torlakson was elected to a four-year term as California’s 27th State Superintendent of Public Instruction on November 2, 2010. As the new chief of California’s public school system and leader of the California Department of Education, Superintendent Torlakson applies his experience as a science teacher, high school coach, and state policymaker to fight for California’s students and improve the state’s public education system. Torlakson’s journey has led him from the classrooms of Contra Costa County’s Mt. Diablo Unified School District, (where he remains a teacher-on-leave) to the Antioch City Council, Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, and the California state Senate and Assembly.

During his tenure in the California state Legislature, Torlakson acted to protect education funding, improve student nutrition and physical education, and ensure school safety. He also championed legislation to increase funding for textbooks, computers, and other instructional materials as well as efforts to close the digital divide, eliminate the achievement gap, and reduce the dropout rate.

In 1998, Torlakson authored legislation leading to development of the largest system of after school programs in the nation. In 2006, he authored the bill that led to a 300 percent expansion of these programs—so they now reach 4,000 schools around the state. Torlakson authored the Quality Education Improvement Act (SB 1133) in 2006, which dedicates nearly $3 billion to our lowest-performing schools. He also played a key role negotiating and authoring the $9 billion Proposition 1A bond measure in 1998, which has led to votes supporting more than $36 billion to build new schools and improve existing school buildings.

As the chair and founder of the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness, Torlakson has been a leader in banning junk food from our schools, providing healthier school meals, promoting student health and fitness, and combating diabetes and obesity among our children.

Born in San Francisco, Torlakson served as a fireman in the United States Merchant Marine, earning the Vietnam Service Medal. He earned a B.A. in History, a Life Secondary Teaching Credential, and an M.A. in Education from the University of California, Berkeley.

Torlakson, 61, lives in Pittsburg, California with his wife Mae Cendaña Torlakson. He has two adult daughters both of whom attended California public schools.”

Are you optimistic about the future of California’s public schools under Torlakson?

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