By May S. Ruiz
Dr. Gordon Amerson is a big believer in creating a culture of achievement and opportunity using the innate skills and talents of the community. It is the vision he brings to San Gabriel Valley schools as he leads the Duarte Unified School District (DUSD).
After officially taking over the superintendent position on July 23, 2018, Dr. Amerson spent a month visiting each of the district’s seven schools, preschool programs, and public charter, the California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley (CSArts-SGV), to meet teachers, listen to parents, and learn about the community.
“Until now, my knowledge of Duarte has been rather limited. My father-in-law lives in Baldwin Park and my wife grew up in the area. But I didn’t really know much about it,” confesses Dr. Amerson.
The revelation is understandable given that Dr. Amerson had previously worked in Orange County, and prior to that spent the majority of his career in San Bernardino. It was only by happenstance that he found out about DUSD.
“I was the Associate Superintendent of Human Resource Services at Capistrano Unified School District and I was very fortunate to have a superintendent who was very encouraging of her team’s development and advancement,” relates Dr. Amerson. “Early in the 2017-2018 school year, she supported me when I told her of my interest in joining the ACSA (Association of California School Administrators) Superintendents’ Academy.
“Through ACSA, I went through an intense eight-month superintendent preparation program while holding a full-time job. During that process I was trained on all the components that go into district leadership. Additionally it gave me exposure to state-wide search firms who had interaction with attendees of the program.”
“It was then I started to discover Duarte and DUSD,” continues Dr. Amerson. “I looked at the website and found out about all the transformational work going on. That was very exciting for me and I wanted to know more; that truly sparked my interest.
“I didn’t know Dr. Mucerino at all prior to my applying either, but before leaving his position as superintendent of DUSD, he offered me a 30,000-foot view of the district from his perspective. I appreciated his transparency. I thought it was an exceedingly kind gesture for an outgoing superintendent to do.
“The search firm cast a net nationwide. From what I was told, there were 33 candidates who applied and eight were invited to interview. It was a competitive process and one that I’m glad to rise on top of. I finished the academy in April and secured the job in June, but I don’t take it lightly that I was able to navigate it successfully.”
Dr. Amerson is fully prepared to head a school district, and has a resume to prove it. He describes, “Before taking on this level of responsibility, I was an educator for a long time. I was a classroom teacher, an athletic coach in baseball and football, and a high school principal. I’ve seen a lot of places and spaces along the educational management spectrum which, I believe, helps inform my leadership.
“I have a multi-faceted understanding of what teachers and principals are going through on a daily basis as they try to create a community of learners and to keep students engaged. Seeing that work from different angles and experiences has given me a wide-range perspective and will help me be supportive as well as decisive.”
There is much going on in DUSD. According to Jenny Owen, Public Information Officer, this year they have completed the process of converting four of the district’s elementary schools to K-8 academies. Now each has its own distinctive theme: Andres Duarte Arts Academy; Beardslee Dual Language Academy; Maxwell Academy & International Baccalaureate World School, and Royal Oaks STEAM Academy. Valley View, the remaining elementary school, will begin the transition to become a K-8 this school year, and already has been renamed Valley View Academy of Technology & Creative Learning to reflect its signature programs.
“One of the things I would remember for the rest of my life was being a high school principal at a school with a high-performing dance company led by a talented choreographer,” discloses Dr. Amerson. “They performed in the gym and I was moved by what kids are able to do with music and dance. From then on, I was hooked. We created a piano program. Kids in 9th grade who had never touched the piano were composing music by the time they graduated high school. It is uplifting to see the kinds of opportunities we can offer students.”
Dr. Amerson says further, “My daughter has been in dance formally since she was three years old. My son has been playing the piano, the drums, and the trumpet since he was four. It’s a focal point in our home. When I saw the impact and influence of the arts, and DUSD building a foundation of the arts to all of our schools, that’s what made a huge impression – that got me, hook, line and sinker.”
Much transpired in DUSD under the leadership of Dr. Mucerino, who facilitated the creation and implementation of the district’s strategic plan known as the Competitive Advantage Plan (CAP). Dr. Amerson adds, “With all due respect to Dr. Mucerino, if he were here today, he would say the strategic plan wasn’t his but the community’s. It was the stakeholder engagement, their input and feedback, that helped develop it.
“We have a seven-goal CAP which is the right plan because it was developed by the community; it was what our Board of Education has approved; it was reauthorized, redesigned, and updated recently, right before I arrived. And it is the plan we will be moving forward with. If, at some point, we need to alter something, I will listen, observe, learn, collaborate, and build a coalition before making adjustments.”
The most important issues Dr. Amerson will be tackling are the scholars and the staff. He states, “We have a really great framework around the CAP. But like the saying goes, how do we build a house into a home? I want to make sure scholars are connected to the school they attend; I want our staff to be empowered to do great work. The focus for me would be establishing trust and collaboration, being transparent, being visible so people know I’m accessible, letting them know I’m here to coach, support and mentor. I really want to try my best to coordinate our facilities as an organization to provide the services so people can do their job and kids can learn.”
It’s such an auspicious time for Dr. Amerson to be heading the district and he is well aware of his good fortune. He says, “A long and painful enrollment decline has affected countless school districts. But through transformational objectives within the CAP, DUSD has been able to turn the district around. And I am the lucky beneficiary of it.
“The board, administrators, staff, families, students, and the whole community implemented a community-based strategy. There is a cohesion, a partnership, and a collaboration that exist between the district and the city. That synergy is what helps transform an entire neighborhood and produces positive outcomes for students. I’m happy and excited to be here; I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do the work.”
Dr. Amerson shares his very heartening first month on the job, “It has been amazing because people were so welcoming and responsive, optimistic and positive, helpful and supportive. That’s something you don’t always see or experience. And I want to capitalize on that and the opportunity. I am now on 70-plus hours of one-on-one meetings with folks, which is embedded in this plan of listening and learning.
“I gain various perspectives from the community on what I should be thinking about, what are the challenges they or their children are facing that the community or I need to be aware of. During these meetings I ask people, ‘Let’s reverse roles. If you were the superintendent what would you focus on first and why?’
“That always gets me interesting responses and tells me what’s important to them. Some are like low-hanging fruit that can be done right away, and some are big rocks that require more prolonged thinking and planning which could only be addressed over time.”
To the question ‘what is he most looking forward to working on?’ Dr. Amerson responds, “I am looking forward to continuing to build the four pillars because they’re spot on – a focus on results, service-centered, 21st century schools, and strong partnerships. What I think are the most important things are the teaching and learning; understanding deeply our partnerships and their value; how we will continue to nurture, cultivate, and expand them.
“Those partnerships are wide-ranging, from the work we do on our early college program, in our culinary arts program, all the things we do at our theme-based academies, the international baccalaureate program, our STEAM initiative with ‘Project Lead the Way,’ the alliance we have with City of Hope and CSArts, just to name a few.”
CSArts-SGV provides an extraordinary opportunity for students in the entire San Gabriel Valley – it gives them access to a quality fine arts program. While other schools may offer arts courses, or after-school activities, CSArts-SGV integrates arts academies within the curriculum. Before it opened last year, students who are really interested in pursuing arts courses had to travel to either Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) or Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). CSArts-SGV’s enrollment covers cities beyond Duarte. There is, in fact, an arts program in all DUSD schools.
DUSD is a hopping place. Student learning is balanced and engaging – it offers everything from theatre acting, graphic arts, and music performance to engineering, math, science, and technology. It is an enriching environment for young people to immerse in scholarship as much as it is a satisfying place for teachers to mold responsive minds.
With Dr. Amerson’s leadership, DUSD could very well be the exemplar of erudition. And that would be his singular contribution to a community that continuously strives to afford the best education and a promising future for its youth.