Meet John Gundry
As the incoming superintendent takes the reins of the Pasadena United School District (PUSD), he talks about what drew him to education and how he plans to bring his new realm into the 21st century.
By Noela Hueso 08/01/2011
Jon Gundry is no stranger to the classroom. The incoming PUSD superintendent, who’s taking over the post vacated by the retirement of Edwin Diaz after four-and-a-half years on the job, spent 16 years as an educator in Houston, Texas, before coming to Los Angeles three–and-a-half years ago to become deputy superintendent at the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). He became the interim superintendent last summer and was selected by the PUSD in June.
But that’s only part of the story. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Gundry, 56 and single, has been something of a chameleon in his own education, morphing variously into a pre-med student, anthropology major, a Fulbright scholar in Nicosia, Cyprus, and first-year law student, before adding a master’s degree to his decade of teaching in Houston, Texas, classrooms and settling on a career as a school administrator.
“I wanted to do something that was valuable for the community and something I wasn’t in for selfish reasons,” Gundry says. “I thought being an educator would be the perfect way to go. I didn’t think that I would ever be bored in education, which has turned out to be true.”
Fluent in Spanish, he credits both his early elementary school years in Miami — “I didn’t learn Spanish there, but I’ve always credited them with teaching me how to pronounce the words,” he says — and a trip to Bolivia as a foreign exchange student with the American Field Service with cementing his knowledge of Spanish beyond his three years of language study in high school. “It was very difficult in the beginning because I knew a lot less than I thought,” he says, “but [that trip] is really what sparked my interest in learning the language.”
Gundry was born in Pleasanton in the Bay Area, where his father was stationed at Parks Air Force Base. By the time he graduated from high school in Casa Grande, Ariz., Gundry and his family had already lived in several U.S. cities, including Miami and Corning, N.Y. The various moves suited the inquisitive Gundry and sparked a love of travel and different cultures, which led to his stints in Bolivia and Cyprus, where he worked as a teacher as part of his Fulbright. Gundry capped his tenure in the Houston school system with a top administrative post before coming to Los Angeles in 2008. Hours before his contract was formally approved by the Board of Education, he discussed his latest challenge with Noela Hueso.
What has your day-to-day been like as you gear up for your new post and the start of the 2011–12 school year?
I’ve mostly been meeting people. I’ve been out to visit the summer school programs; I’ve met with a couple of the principals to talk about what they’re doing on their campuses; I’m meeting with parent and community groups. I’ve been doing interviews with print and television media. I had breakfast this morning with the president of Pasadena City College [Mark Rocha], and the mayor [Bill Bogaard] happened to be there, so I talked to him as well.
What are the main challenges you face as the new superintendent?
The main challenges are learning what’s already been done to address issues facing the district, finding out the direction the district and board want to go in and then bringing my own vision to the table.
What is your vision?
Improving student academic performance, identifying where the district is lacking and determining the causes in order to identify the solutions. I’m committed to bringing 21st-century learning skills to all PUSD schools. We live in such a rapidly changing world, we don’t even know what skills and specific knowledge kids are going to need in the future to be successful. Many of the students who are entering kindergarten today will one day have careers that don’t even exist yet. How can we anticipate that? We need to teach skills — critical thinking, good communication, a facility with technology — that are going to serve them no matter what they need to be able do in the future.
How will you bring that about?
One of the things I tried to do when I worked for L.A. County was build collaboration among superintendents around the idea of bringing 21st-century skills to every district. About a third of them were committed to the effort. The County Office of Education is writing a grant proposal that would pay for professional teacher development for participating districts. When I was with the county, Pasadena wasn’t one of the districts participating in the effort, though South Pasadena was. I definitely want the PUSD to participate.
How will you get the community and the City of Pasadena to support you?
This is a fairly easy sell with community and business organizations. About three years ago I met with the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce — they have an education committee made up of members who aren’t professional educators but have a specific interest in public education — to find out what their priorities were for public education in L.A. County. They believe that the public schools need to be emphasizing a connection between the world of academics and college and the world of work. Community and business leaders are interested in public schools creating a future work force. The tougher sell is with the education community, which is accustomed to doing things the same way and is a little resistant to innovation.
How are you going to restore the faith of those parents who have chosen to send their kids to private rather than PUSD schools?
The district has already done some of the things that need to be done: the creation of some gifted and talented programs; instituting the International Baccalaureate program [described by Time as “a rigorous curriculum… recognized by universities around the world”] — which is quite a draw for parents and is something that should be expanded. I supervised three IB elementary schools, a middle school and a high school in Houston. It’s a wonderful program and it’s not just for gifted kids. It’s appropriate for everybody.
We need to find out what it is that parents want in public schools that would draw them back. Communicating to potential PUSD parents the good things that are going on in the district is important too, because sometimes perception is not reality.
How are you planning on dealing with a shrinking budget and larger class sizes?
The district has already cut back about 50 percent in administrative positions. There’s only so far you can go in cutting your administration before you start not having sufficient support for the schools.
I remain optimistic, though, that the budget situation is going to improve. I think next year we’re going to start to see a bit of a turnaround. In the meantime we have to make sure that we’re spending our money efficiently.
Have you spoken to our governor about it?
I had the opportunity to speak with Gov. Brown a few months ago when, in my old post as interim county superintendent, I hosted a public forum with the governor and the state superintendent of public instruction. I really believe that he is going to protect K-12 education as much as possible. It is one of his administration’s highest priorities and he does have a long-term plan for identifying sufficient funding. He thinks we spend too much money on corrections and not enough on public education.
What about funding for special education?
There’s a political effort on the part of school districts and counties and states to get the federal government to fund special education. They’ve promised to fully fund special education ever since they required it of us, but they’ve never done it. I will work with the county and the state to continue to put pressure on the federal government to fully fund the special education mandates.
Gov. Brown recently signed the controversial SB 48, which mandates that the contributions of homosexuals be taught in public schools. How will the PUSD implement that in the 2013–14 school year?
I can’t answer that question without having a conversation with the board. That’s a decision they would make. I don’t know if that would require a recommendation from the superintendent.
Do you anticipate any backlash from parents or the removal of students from the PUSD?
Well, it’s a controversial topic so there always is going to be some backlash, but I don’t anticipate that anything is going to happen here that would cause parents to want to take their children out of the public schools over this issue.
What are your plans for working with the City of Pasadena to improve the sports facilities of the schools?
There is a whole facilities master plan that was developed a couple of years ago in conjunction with school site personnel and families to really identify the needs of each campus. So site-by-site project lists are part of the facilities master plan and there is some joint use with City of Pasadena, so we are developing a deeper partnership with them on everything from facilities to student safety and truancy prevention and dropout prevention.
There has been a lot of criticism about No Child Left Behind testing. What are your thoughts on it?
I came from the Houston School District, which was the birthplace of NCLB. In Texas, there’s heavy emphasis on accountability for student academic performance.
California is behind much of the country in terms of accountability. If you do see strong systems in place, it comes from the local school district, not from the state. Students are entrusted to us and we’re getting paid with tax dollars. Everyone, including me, should be accountable for the results of their work.
I do think it’s important to have a lot of data available and to use it in order to inform our curriculum planning, our lesson planning and planning for individual student success.
I have mixed feelings about NCLB, as most people do. One of the best things that it has done for us is place emphasis on accountability for every student.
We have just as great a responsibility for meeting the needs of our most able students as we have for meeting the needs of our most at-risk students — and the expectations need to be high.
I was asked in a recent interview what I was going to do about the perception that closing the achievement gap means that we’re not paying attention to the needs of our most able learners. My response was that actually the opposite is true: Research shows that students do their best when they are placed in an environment of high expectations. If we have those high expectations for our best students and have the same expectations for our lowest performing students, that’s the best way to close the achievement gap.