Leonel Talavera is the newest member of the Fullerton School District Board of Trustees, representing Area 5 (south Fullerton). He was sworn in on December 15, 2020. Here’s an interview with Trustee Talavera, lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is your background? Why did you want to be on the School Board?
I used to work at CHOC as a community health worker, primarily working in underserved, underprivileged neighborhoods in Orange County. My passion grew from working with families. Then an opportunity came about at Habitat for Humanity as a Neighborhood Revitalization Manager. I partner with residents in south Fullerton to improve quality of life—housing, education, economic development, transportation. So my background lends itself to community building. I moved to Fullerton in 2010 with my wife and two boys. I grew up in San Gabriel Valley, in La Puente. Being on School Board, I want to be an asset and a role model to my family and other community members. I want to show that we can make a difference being in these leadership roles. I want to evolve as a person, too.
What are some of your concerns with FSD schools and issues students and families are facing?
I don’t necessarily have concerns, but there’s always a need to grow. There are always ongoing needs that the school district can improve on—making sure that we’re always providing the best education that we can to our community. Making sure that we’re always trying to address the achievement gap.
What is the achievement gap?
It has to do with the State testing, making sure that we’re up to par, making sure that no kid is left behind, in a sense—that we’re providing equal and equitable education throughout our district at all our schools.
You talked about working in south Fullerton. Both historically and today there are disproportionately more lower-income Latino families in south Fullerton. Can you talk about some of the challenges that kids in your area face that maybe kids in other areas might not face as much?
We are a higher density area in south Fullerton in terms of housing. So when a kid goes to school and then has to go home to continue their education—with homework, projects to do—are they in the same environment that they are in at the schools? That’s definitely one of the things that the pandemic has really shown—that’s a big challenge to the Latino community, especially here in Fullerton, is can you have a family of 5, three siblings, virtually learning from home in a decent manner? Or is everyone confined and restricted in limited space? I think the schools do an amazing job of bringing the resources and the support that they need in south Fullerton. I think there’s always improvements—there’s always a need, always challenges, whether it’s technical support, or making sure that they’re being provided with the same opportunities to further their education both at home and in the classroom.
What is the District doing to address some of those needs and challenges faced by people in your area in terms of technology or otherwise during the pandemic?
They have these mobile hot spots—school buses with network hubs that they are able to drive around so WiFi can reach out into the community more. They were doing that pre-pandemic, and then obviously they had to gear up when COVID-19 hit. They provide hot spots free of charge, technical support, and resources for families to be able to get Internet providers at a low cost.
I’ve heard that a high percentage of our students live in poverty. What are McKinney-Vento kids?
McKinney-Vento is any student who is categorized as homeless. The school district has a department that works with them, and they provide them with all the resources that they need to make sure they can continue coming to school and receive food. They also try to connect them with housing resources. The biggest challenge with McKinney-Vento is that they have to self-identify. [According to the latest available data, the number of McKinney-Vento students in the Fullerton School District is 168].
What about overall poverty?
It depends on how you determine that. Do we count families as living in poverty based on them qualifying for free and reduced lunches? That’s a large percentage. In south Fullerton, that’s anywhere from 50-70% of students, depending on the school. Do you base “poverty” on that, do you base it on census data? It’s hard to say, but I think there are multiple factors that go into what the poverty rate is in any city. But the number of students in the District who qualify for free and reduced lunches—that number is high [48.62% districtwide, according to the latest available data]. That was one of the biggest needs early on in the pandemic, especially over the summer—making sure the kids had access to food. I think the District did a good job of responding to that—setting up the lunch program throughout the summer, and continuing to do that on holidays or non-school days.
What policy changes would you like to see?
In coming into this role, my way of thinking was to be the asset and just be the person that I am. I don’t have an agenda. I just want to lend myself, to make sure that the District continues to allow all students to thrive—just making sure there’s quality education that’s equitable.
What are some new and interesting things you’ve learned so far?
Financially, we have to make sure that we’re stable and viable. That’s one of my responsibilities as a Boardmember. So I’m learning a lot about the financial aspect of a district. Also, I came in during the pandemic so that’s definitely kept me on my toes. It’s a unique situation. I’m hoping soon we can see what it looks like without having to focus on COVID numbers and vaccinations and things like that.
Where is the District in terms of returning to in-person learning?
We went back to our in-person learning (with hybrid and virtual options) February 1.
Can you talk about the “Listening Tour” that came out of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer and the conversations it sparked?
My hope is making sure that we listen to both the community and the District, to see how we move forward with social justice issues, how we’re talking about that in the classrooms.
You’re talking about racial and social justice. Could this process potentially affect the curriculum? Or what could come out of this?
Essentially, we’re making sure that we’re really addressing any social justice issues both historically and also in our present time. They’ve held the listening tours already and have already gotten a lot of feedback. On December 15, the day I was sworn in, they presented the findings of the listening tour. And then on the 26th, we had the consultant share with us—talking us through where the district is at, and how we can move forward, and how she can help us integrate that feedback into the day-to-day both in the district and at each school—how they roll that out. Some schools already have some activities. I know Woodcrest has a book club and they’re focusing a lot of their book choices on social justice issues. So they’ve been leading on this. Some schools are already in a sense implementing what they want to see.
How important is funding the arts program throughout the district, or should it continue to rely on community donors?
With regard to All the Arts for All the Kids and other partners, I think those are great partnerships between both the District and the community. The District doesn’t rely solely on community donors for arts programming. The District does budget some dollars for arts program. I think it’s good whenever there’s a non-profit that can lend itself and be an asset to the community, to its stakeholders, making sure that it’s a viable collaboration building on the strengths and talents that that organization might already have. If it aligns with the district’s goals, then why not?
Do you support restorative practices (Positive Behavior Interventions and Support)—taking a less punitive approach to students, and making sure we help them learn and grow from mistakes?
We should definitely support this. It’s important to address things with a growth mindset and understanding making sure there’s positive reinforcements. We’re always going to be learning. We’re always going to be growing. We’re not perfect. Everyone is human. People make mistakes and we should address that in a more positive way, with a growth mindset. My wife has really drawn this onto me—it’s a good way of leadership and developing and coaching. When students do something wrong, let’s always try to get to the root cause and make sure they understand so it doesn’t happen again.
What does that look like in practice?
With regard to suspensions or expulsions, we want to avoid those and make sure we find a way to get to the root cause, and help the person develop and grow from their mistakes—how do we get them to shift in a more positive direction?
Is there anything you think people should be aware of that we haven’t touched on?
I wear many hats—my resident hat, my Habitat for Humanity Hat, and my School Board hat. I am pretty civically engaged, and I’m hoping for more people to get engaged. I want that everyday person to feel like, “Hey this is something I could do.” I am accessible. You can e-mail me at email@example.com.