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Superintendent works to 'move the dial forward in public education'

  • April 24, 2014

By Andrew Lachman
Santa Cruz Sentinel Writer

SANTA CRUZ -- Michael Watkins, superintendent of Santa Cruz County Office of Education since 2007, knows the importance of learning the fundamentals and providing leadership that reflects a broad perspective and understanding of how to create a culture of achievement.

As point guard for an Oakland high school basketball team, Watkins honed his emerging ability to lead the way. He learned to quickly assess a player's strengths and weaknesses, developed the agility to control the basketball and the confidence to set up a winning play.

Watkins said he initially may not have been the best on the basketball court or in the classroom but he persisted in mastering the necessary skills to excel.

"My coach and teachers believed in me and were supportive and respectful," he said. "I gravitate toward people who are generous with their time and want to help others succeed."

And those are qualities Watkins strives to emulate.

The first elected African American county superintendent of schools in California, Watkins had a head start. His parents never doubted his potential and had high expectations. His father was a painter who didn't have the opportunity to go beyond the seventh grade, and his mother, who attended a historically black college in Texas, worked as an accountant at a Naval Supply Center. All three of their children graduated from college.

"We were a solid nuclear family in which it was considered incumbent upon us to address social inequities," said Watkins, 64. "I was raised to have good values and to live a socially responsible life."

While an undergraduate at CSU East Bay, he worked summers for the U.S. Merchant Marine as a cook, dish washer and maintenance worker. He later returned to his alma mater to earn a master's in school administration.

Watkins's experience teaching dependents of a juvenile court and his work as a special education administrator and director of alternative education underscored his belief that too often the potential and abilities of children who need a more nuanced or individualized program are not appreciated or adequately served.

He works to support teachers "who have a proclivity to change the world," and the desire "to build relationships and to engage and to academically challenge students and celebrate diversity."

As president-elect of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, Watkins further learned the importance of building consensus and appreciating what others have to offer.

"I check my ego at the door," he said. "I don't want to be confrontational or counterproductive. I want to move the dial forward in public education. That's what's important."

Watkins said it is critical to ensure that all students, including those from low-income families, are technologically savvy and have access to computers.

"Technology should be embedded in all our schools," he said. "The digital divide concerns me."

Watkins seeks to strengthen and expand early childhood and migrant education as well as to improve professional development programs for teachers and administrators that encourage collaboration.

He is especially concerned that as a society "we don't value education enough" and consequently it is difficult to attract and to keep the best teachers.

Speaking to a group of future teachers at UC Santa Cruz, Watkins said, "I would think long and hard about becoming a teacher if there is not consistent and increased investment in education so teachers can make a livable salary. We need to elevate the status of the profession and be less prescriptive to foster creativity."

Yet Watkins isn't ambivalent about his career choice.

"Education remains a noble profession," he said, "and the love of my life."


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