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Leadership Profile: Cindy Marten

San Diego's superintendent has a deep and abiding
faith in public education.

Last February, Cindy Marten was sitting in her office—the principal’s office—at Central Elementary School in San Diego when a call from the school board came through to her cell phone. She knew she should answer it. The board informed her that then-superintendent Bill Kowba had just told them of his plans to retire. “Why are you calling me?” Marten recalls thinking at the time. As one of 180 elementary principals in the district, she thought they might ask her to sit on a search committee similar to one she had served on four years earlier.

Instead, the board explained they wanted to appoint a new superintendent from within the district and inquired if Marten would be willing to leave her post at her PreK–5 school.

“The way I answered it was, ‘I came here to make a difference, to make a contribution. But I always knew that [with] strong leadership, you should be able to leave, and when you’re gone, it gets better,'" she explains. “If a school is doing well only because of one person—that sort of hero personality—that’s not how we’re going to save public education in America, with hero personalities.” Marten knew she’d have to leave some day but never had specific career ambitions; perhaps she’d teach second grade again, her favorite level.  

But Marten didn’t return to the classroom. Instead, just about 30 hours after receiving that phone call, she stood at a press conference where she was introduced as the next superintendent of San Diego Unified School District.

Instructional Leader
Marten’s background is rooted strongly in literacy, curriculum, and instruction. She found success in schools of privilege early in her career and wanted to apply what she learned to at-risk populations. So when she was recruited to join the staff of Central Elementary in 2002, she jumped at the chance."

“One hundred percent poverty, 85 percent English learners, every risk factor known to public education was on that campus. That is what I wanted,” she says. “All that I saw at private school, what good money could buy. All that I saw in Poway Unified, what a good zip code could buy. You should be able to go to your neighborhood school anywhere in your county and get an education equal to what I’ve experienced. That was the naive belief that I brought.”

It turns out that Marten’s vision was far from naive. She saw results when she implemented research-based practices at Central, one of the city’s most challenging elementary schools. Marten and her colleagues made sure there was a viable curriculum in every classroom, chose assessments that matched instruction, supported teachers through ongoing professional development, and provided wraparound services, including a full-service medical clinic for the community.

This same belief in equity that brought Marten to Central remains at the heart of her work as superintendent, especially because it’s one of the main challenges that San Diego’s schools face.

“We have what’s called Vision 2020 for a quality school in every neighborhood,” says John Lee Evans, a board member who served as president when Marten was unanimously appointed. “We looked at one of our principals, who was Cindy Marten, who was actually doing that—creating a quality school in her neighborhood. We wanted to take that to scale across the district.”

Building Community
Aside from equity, if there’s another word to describe Marten’s work, it’s community. In fact, she says she disagreed with the board’s decision to appoint her so abruptly without community input.

Already quite visible in San Diego, Marten set out to hear from the people she serves. She spoke at more than 100 venues in the months leading up to her official start as superintendent last July. She visited community forums and meetings of school employees, including cafeteria workers, landscapers, custodians, teachers, and principals. She focused on the same message no matter where she went: “what it takes to deliver on the hope and promise of public education.”

Marten takes a similar community approach with managing the districts’ 14,000 employees, especially in encouraging open exchanges between schools. She restructured the roles of six area superintendents and set up monthly principal institutes to share ideas about what’s working and how to replicate it.

“We’re all critical of somebody coming on who doesn’t have superintendent experience,” says Listy Gillingham, principal of Patrick Henry High School. “I think that was true for many of the high schools and middle schools, especially because [Marten was] coming from elementary. But she’s done a really good job of listening and asking and making sure that her team understands the complexity of all the levels. I like that we’re being heard.”

Marten has also made school visits a priority. They aren’t short drive-bys or invitations to special events, but rather thorough walk-throughs of classrooms with the principals and area superintendents. The purpose? To provide support and feedback about instructional practices. These visits encapsulate Marten as both an educator and a leader.

"I really believe in teachers. I believe that the heart of the classroom is a high-quality teacher who is well supported," Marten says. "I really believe in the role of the parent as equal partner in how we do our work. My core beliefs are still there. Superintendent is just another job."

Spring 2014—

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