Just prior to the start of the 2021/22 school year, I sat down with new FJUHSD Superintendent Dr. Steve McLaughlin and discussed his early impressions of the District, goals, and some challenges he sees for this academic year. With the Delta variant spread and the real possibility of other variants, this school year requires staff, students, and families to maintain flexibility as schools return to in-person learning while community health situations remain fluid.
Dr. McLaughlin has spent over two decades in Orange County education (www.fjuhsd.org, scroll down for his bio news release) and experienced distance learning as both an Assistant Superintendent of Education Services and a parent during this difficult year and a half. He supports the current FJUHSD COVID-19 protocols and said at the last board meeting that he believes that vaccines are key to moving forward through the pandemic environment. He believes that staff and students need to be celebrated for their amazing efforts to stay connected and keep learning new skills and coping mechanisms during distance learning. One of Dr. McLaughlin’s early goals is creating meaningful connections with his administration and staff. He believes that communication while building connections among teachers, support staff, and students leads to success and builds resiliency to deal with reentry into in-person learning while still coping with loss and future challenges.
In addition to building meaningful relationships, Dr. McLaughlin supports increasing educational opportunities to all students including Long Term English Learners and students with disabilities. He fully supports encouraging students to explore their interests and abilities, which aligns with current FJUHSD school site cultures that offer student access to multiple academic and CTE (Career Technical Education) choices in a safe learning environment. A secure educational environment encourages self-knowledge and provides a foundation to make successful life choices after graduation.
After teaching and being an administrator at both middle and high schools, another early goal for Dr. McLaughlin is to strengthen early and continuous communication with the District’s feeder school families, which he thinks makes high school transitions easier and less disruptive. He strongly supports incoming students and their families to actively familiarize themselves with high school settings through district communications and campus tours prior to 8th grade. He believes that parent involvement results in greater high school student success, but he acknowledges that parent involvement is different in high school as students gain independence, so the high school district needs to offer multiple opportunities to incentivize parents to stay involved with their children in new ways.
When I asked him about his first impressions of the FJUHSD, which includes Fullerton, Buena Park, and La Habra, his face brightened, and he talked about how he is looking forward to seeing our “big, small town” community in action. He felt reassured to see how so many people both affiliated with the District and in the community at large who are focused on student success and how a deep thread of pride exists for each unique high school and its culture. He believes that teens gain mentorship and encouragement by engaging with supportive adults and he welcomes community interactions. He views this period of reengaging to in-person meetings as an opportunity to enhance community and high school district relationships.
We discussed his impressions about the FJUHSD school choice policy and he diplomatically said he looks forward to seeing it in action. The tradition of FJUSHD’s open market system, which allows local families to place teenagers in a school setting because it is the best academic and emotional fit for them and not necessarily the school to which they live closest, is something we tend to take for granted. Watching incoming students and their families explore the various high school sites and figure out their best academic fits is always interesting. The FJUHSD high graduation rates and numerous college and career success stories reflect the high potential of success that FJUHSD students experience being in an educational environment that fits their needs.
Finally, I asked his perspective on positive outcomes emerging from distance learning and the major challenges he thinks the District will face this coming year. Dr. McLaughlin said how impressed he was with the many teachers and staff who committed effort and innovation to ensure that student accommodations and education continued even when they were experiencing hardships and losses of their own. The pandemic turned everything upside down and made many people realize that we need to care for ourselves and find a life/work balance in order to succeed. He also pointed out that teacher-parent connections improved during this time due to increased use of technology, which allowed virtual back-to-school events and parent conferences opening up pathways of communication. He supports continued parent participation through technological options for those who cannot meet in-person for meetings on school sites.
We wrapped up with him circling back to his theme of meaningful connections as his overall districtwide challenge this year. Returning to in-person environments combines the chance for all staff and students to build more meaningful connections and relationships, while simultaneously recognizing how important it is to care for ourselves and each other in this new environment. Creating these significant connections will bring greater understanding of where our teenagers are academically and emotionally, while providing an opportunity to figure out what support personnel and programs both staff and students need to thrive and allow them to achieve success in the coming years.