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The School District’s Fresh Slate of New Administrators

Introducing Margaret Christensen, Ben Drati, Emilio Handall, and Todd Ryckman


Thursday, August 9, 2012

In the year since David Cash took over as superintendent of Santa Barbara schools, he has completely overhauled the district office staff. Come fall, four crucial new administrators will be setting policy. And if they don’t improve the educational climate of the district, this new cabinet ​— ​which includes two Army veterans and a former Fresno State linebacker ​— ​will at least be able to do a lot of pushups. Make no mistake: The leadership of this quartet, good or bad, will be felt by students and teachers.

Margaret Christensen
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Paul Wellman

Margaret Christensen

The Soldier

A Navy brat, Margaret Christensen earned a master’s degree in English and taught high school English before getting the itch to follow in the family tradition. She enlisted in the Army, served under Colin Powell in the Pentagon during the Gulf War, and eventually ​— ​while climbing up the ranks from private to lieutenant colonel ​— ​came to work in the ROTC program at UCSB. She then taught ROTC at Santa Barbara high schools before becoming an assistant principal at both San Marcos and Dos Pueblos high schools, all the while earning a doctorate at UCSB and writing a dissertation about administrative teams, where she concluded the two most crucial attributes of a good administration are a sense of belonging and high standards. At Dos Pueblos, she worked for then-principal Dave Cash who, she said, excelled at establishing both of those.

The assistant superintendent of Human Resources, Christensen is in charge of hiring and retaining talent, a job done better, she says, when teachers are collaborating with both each other and with their superiors. Since arriving in July, however, Christensen has been busy conducting interviews. In a newly enacted district practice, teacher candidates are now being asked back to second interviews during which they present lesson plans. Superintendent Cash attends most of these. Christensen said that she is looking for four qualities in new teachers: a deep understanding of pedagogy, a willingness to interact with parents, concern for assisting a broad swath of students, and a desire to learn themselves.

It seemed as if Christensen had become a naturalized Californian when, in 2004, doctors discovered she had a brain aneurysm. After its successful removal, she felt the need to be with her family, so she returned to her hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and took a job with the school district there. And just when it started to seem like she was a prodigal cheesehead come home, Scott Walker happened.

When the Republican governor pushed through his “budget repair bill” requiring public employees to contribute more to their health care and pensions while taking away their collective bargaining rights, it poisoned the waters at school districts, and teachers retired in droves. Seventy teachers left the Green Bay district in the middle of last year, and 140 total retired, making the job of the personnel chief hellish. Christensen said she was sitting at a board meeting last year wishing she could return to California when she noticed that not only was the HR job in Santa Barbara still open, but her old boss had become superintendent. She hopes this will be her last stop (although she will return to Wisconsin for a few Packers games). “I want to be more than a grain of sand on the beach,” she said.

Ben Drati
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Paul Wellman

Ben Drati

The Refugee

If Christensen’s route to Santa Barbara was circuitous, new Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Ben Drati’s may have been even more so. Born in Uganda, Drati and his seven siblings fled to Los Angeles after civil war broke out in 1978. Drati’s father was studying at the Fuller Theological Seminary and would later become the Anglican bishop of the West Nile Diocese in eastern Africa.

Because he came to the United States speaking no English at all and without the luxury of anybody who could translate his native Lugbara, Drati has a soft spot for English-language learners (ELL). “Teachers saw me as a human,” he said, “someone who has an opportunity, not an at-risk student. Any time I see an ELL student, I say the American Dream is possible. Institutions can make it possible.”

Drati credits the institutions of Los Angeles High School and Fresno State, where he studied biochemistry on a football scholarship. Still built like the linebacker he was on the 1992 squad that rolled a ranked USC team in the Freedom Bowl, Drati likes to razz USC alum and über-fan Dave Cash about that game. He worked for Cash at the Clovis district in Fresno where he last served as a high school principal.

On his desk in his barely broken-in office sits a stack of books called The Culturally Proficient School, which Drati plans on giving to all the secondary principals in the district. It stresses the need to teach material that draws from the experience of students in the classroom. When a former staff member of his said that she teaches Romeo and Juliet because it is a classic that everybody needs to read before graduating high school, that wasn’t enough of a sell for him. Teachers must be able to articulate what a student is learning from a text.

Emilio Handell
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Paul Wellman

Emilio Handell

The Grinder

Drati’s counterpart for elementary education is Emilio Handall, also an Army vet and former footballer who would probably admit he was a bit too short to make it in the college game but played running back for the first undefeated Carpinteria High School football team. He compares his running style to his work ethic, calling himself a grinder. Before his promotion to the district office, Handall served as the principal of McKinley Elementary School. In his time there, he helped to significantly increase the school’s test scores and shepherd it out of Program Improvement, a state designation for struggling schools that is applied a bit too freely but is nevertheless difficult to shake.

Educators at McKinley (which was the subject of a Santa Barbara Independent cover story on May 31) credit some of their improvement to the implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in which teachers of the same grade level or subject area work as a team to hone their delivery. The motivating idea behind PLCs is that data drives instruction. In other words, teachers must constantly assess their lesson plans and share both their success and struggles with each other in order to revise and reteach.

Teachers across the district will be encouraged to operate within the PLC model by Handall, Drati, and Christensen, who is in fact devising a tool for collecting data on PLCs. Rigorous attention to test scores, data, and assessments can sometimes make teachers feel put upon by administration. But on the flip side, Drati explained, “If I don’t like what you are doing and you are producing, I’ll tell other teachers to come watch you.”

Todd Ryckman
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Paul Wellman

Todd Ryckman

The Techie

Along with PLCs, another change that both teachers and students will notice in the coming years is greater integration of technology in the classroom. Heading up that effort is longtime Dos Pueblos social studies teacher and self-described tech geek Todd Ryckman, who never thought he would take a job in the district office but, like his new colleagues, couldn’t resist the siren call of his former boss, Dave Cash. He was hired for the newly created Director of Technology position.

Noting that the state is mandating all testing be done online by 2014, Ryckman explained that the district needs to figure out how to get a digital device in the hands of every student, which can be challenging given the wealth disparities between Santa Barbara’s students. Payment plans are one option.

Another is acknowledging that students’ smartphones are often more powerful than the aging workstations on their teachers’ desks. Whereas Ryckman would often tell students he needed to do some research to answer their questions during lessons, in recent years he or his students have been able to Google (or ask Siri) immediately. Schools cannot ignore that technology has become increasingly integrated into our cognitive workload, and according to Ryckman, that means technology cannot be anathema.

He is especially fond of the iPad. Last year, the Dos Pueblos PTA offered to pay half the price of an iPad for any teacher who wanted to buy one. “It’s reinvigorated teachers,” said Ryckman. And it has also proved to be less expensive than one might think. The district would like to replace all overhead projectors ​— ​which cost about $800 and require a $400 bulb every two years ​— ​with flat panel screens. Paired with a $500 iPad, they can serve as document cameras, whiteboards, movie players, and televisions. Hundred-dollar textbooks, as well, can be downloaded onto iPads for next to nothing. So, all of a sudden, the investment in one doesn’t seem so bad.

If the November parcel tax measures pass, Cash hopes to implement a halftime technology coach at each high school who will train “technology integrators,” or teachers with a one-period release in which they will be able to, in turn, train their colleagues. This pyramid system will trickle all the way down to the elementary schools so that any new technology is accompanied with training on how to use it. “Technology,” said Ryckman, “is not a replacement for good teaching. It should be used organically.”