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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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  • Realia

    Did this event receive any local TV news coverage? I would like to be able to see the event, or parts of it, if possible (if it’s online). It was heartening to learn of Mount being in the news for positive reasons.

  • tharrington

    Here’s a link to a short video I shot: http://qik.com/video/26855050. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, I was unable to shoot more of the event. Also, I’m sorry that the audio quality isn’t very good.

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    In good times, the State Superintendent Public Instruction can have a beneficial impact on certain programs and constituencies by recommending that money be shoveled in one particular direction or another, but in California’s current fiscal circumstances, there will be little of that. He can also initiate studies of various aspects of our educational system, showing all of the ways in which we are failing our children. But this, too, is familiar territory and unlikely to move many needles. The one thing left that Mr. Torlakson could do is use his experience and his office as a bully pulpit to promote genuinely new ways of thinking about how education is delivered in California. But here one might be wise to wait for tangible proposals, or better yet, results. Mr. Torlakson relied heavily on teacher union support to get elected. With friends like Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who as a Contra County Supervisor promoted more generous public union pension policies that have made our fiscal situation even more dire, and Rep. George Miller, who never saw an education funding proposal that couldn’t be bigger, even as he has opposed virtually every attempt at increasing accountability in schools, one wonders how comfortable Torlakson will be in the company of new ideas, or whether he will stick with the crowd that consistently defends the status quo.
    Next time we see Mr. Torlakson, all of us — citizens and reporters alike — should ask him questions such as these:
    “To what extent do you think budget cuts account for the poor results in CA schools?”
    “Given the poor academic outcomes in states that spend considerably more per pupil than CA, what level of education funding do you think is appropriate for our state?”
    “Do you see any alternative to our reliance on local school district monopolies that are currently responsible for educating the vast majority of students in CA?”
    “Do you support, or oppose, more school choice for families in CA?”
    Once Mr. Torlakson has answered these questions, Theresa, one will be better able to answer your question about the future of CA schools under his leadership.

  • Realia

    Thanks for posting the link. It’s a shame that no video media bothered to cover the event; the only one, to my knowledge, that occurred here in the Bay Area.

  • Craig Cheslog

    @Realia: We had a videographer at the Inauguration, and I hope we can post the video of the complete event on Wednesday; should be Thursday at the latest. I’ll make sure to let Theresa know when it is available.

  • Craig Cheslog

    Also, I should mention that while there were TV stations at the event, the one story I’ve seen posted to the web is this one from KGO-7. http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/video?id=7877747&pid=7877248

  • tharrington

    Torlakson talked during his campaign about the need to consolidate small districts or to consolidate functions that are replicated in each district and instead have them done centrally at county offices of education.
    A recent letter to the editor of the Walnut Creek Journal suggests that Walnut Creek schools should be consolidated into one district, removing campuses from MDUSD: http://www.contracostatimes.com/opinion/ci_17016479?nclick_check=1.
    Do you believe Torlakson should make district consolidation a priority?

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    I suspect that Torlakson was referring in his campaign to small districts combining to eliminate duplicative administrative roles. The letter to the Times was referring to shifting the Northgate area schools from MDUSD to Walnut Creek Schools. As much as I would like to see that happen, it wouldn’t really eliminate much expense — just shift it feom one district to another. Under CA laws and practices, it is very very hard to shift boundaries like that, if the district that is giving up the students (MDUSD in this case) opposes the change. I can’t see Torlakson stirring up that hornet’s nest, particularly given his many ties to MDUSD.

  • tharrington

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives.
    What’s your reaction to CCT columnist Tom Barnidge’s column questioning how much power Torlakson will have to make changes? http://bit.ly/dW17iT

  • tharrington

    FYI, Torlakson will hold a news conference tomorrow morning to discuss the “fiscal crisis in California schools.” I’ll listen in and let you know what he says.

  • tharrington

    Also, here’s the list of Governor Brown’s State Board of Education appointments: http://bit.ly/gdfhU9.
    What do you think?

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    Tom Barnidge once again hit the nail on the head, as he so often does. After being termed out of his previous positions, Torlakson, like our new Governor, needed a new job — preferably one with state-wide visibility and a nice pension — and the electorate obliged. Torlakson could make this position visible, and therefore possibly important, if we were willing to tackle some of the big education questions, but those involve wading into dangerous political waters — not likely given his past, or the new appointees to the State Board of Ed. This new crowd is about as “status quo” as you can get. Appointing Honig required a particular level of chutzpah. That, or a general indifference to the state of education in California, which has explained the actions of too many of our politicians of late.

  • Ruth Carver

    Hi Jim (#8),
    Tom Torlakson said that he plans to consolidate small school districts “actively.” I wish him luck, since the process has gone at glacial pace, and frequent change of political direction, since California first started after WWII. But if he’s successful, then the current Walnut Creek School District should be consolidated because it’s too small. There are 2 options: (1) create a Acalanes Unified (K-12) district with Orinda, Moraga, etc. and/or (2) finally create a Walnut Creek Unified (K-12) district. Obviously the latter option makes more sense for our city.
    Torlakson didn’t use the term “economies of scale” but that’s his goal. Experts agree that the ideal medium size for a school district is about 10,000 students, and it becomes impossibly inefficient with over 30,000 students. MDUSD is over 30K and expected to add thousands more with the Concord Naval Weapons Development. I interned 30 years ago with Judge Egly during LAUSD’s busing lawsuit, and I personally saw the problems of a large district! If Walnut Creek were unified, it would be the ideal size.
    As far as saving money, the WCSTN 2008 petition to add our half of Walnut Creek to the current WCSD and Acalanes would have added MILLIONS per year (estimated 4 million) to our city schools, because our area would have automatically been added to their parcel taxes. After our petition was denied, myself and other WCSTN veterans actively campaigned for the Measure D parcel tax, which was supported by Walnut Creek but not by other MDUSD cities and therefore defeated. Now Torlakson seems to be saying that every district should have a parcel tax, but it’s just not happening in MDUSD, his own district according to news reports that he’s a MDHS teacher on leave of absence.
    To recap, our city is divided by a nonsensical district boundary that actually goes around 3 sides of one house! On the Acalanes side of town teachers are paid $25,000 more than on the MDUSD side of town. Soon we may lose another week of instruction time, and we’re facing school closures. No one can remember the last time a Walnut Creek resident was on the MDUSD board. The list goes on…
    Walnut Creek citizens never have been able to vote on our school district. The Legislature has attempted to simplify the procedure, but you’re right, this county is anti-reform and won’t let it happen. I hope someday the politicians finally will allow Walnut Creek to vote on this issue.

  • KarenM

    Ruth – during the last school board election in November, were any of the candidates from Walnut Creek? I’m sorry I don’t remember …

  • tharrington

    Karen, there were no Walnut Creek candidates in the last MDUSD board election. The challengers were all from Concord and Clayton.

  • KarenM

    And is Linda Mayo from Pleasant Hill?

  • Jules

    Yes Linda Mayo is from Pleasant Hill. It is too bad that a Walnut Creek resident did not run for one of the BOE positions.