WEEKEND PROFILE: All Aboard, Dr. Gary Rapkin’s Leadership Bus Is Taking Off

October 9, 2010
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Dr. Gary Rapkin at the Bonita Unified School District is a big fan of author Harper Lee, who wrote in "To Kill a Mockingbird, "The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Dr. Gary Rapkin at the Bonita Unified School District is a big fan of author Harper Lee, who wrote in "To Kill a Mockingbird, "The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Walk into the superintendent’s office at the Bonita Unified School District, and count on getting an education.

On Dr. Gary Rapkin’s desk are books, lots of them: “Lincoln on Leadership,” by Donald Phillips; “The Inner Game of Tennis,” by W. Timothy Gallwey; “The Leadership Challenge,” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner; “The Six Secrets of Change,” by Michael Fullan; “Everybody Communicates, But Few Connect,” by John Maxwell; and a dog-eared copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

A glance over at the bookshelf reveals at least three copies of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” He must hand them out like candy bowl treats.”

“There are some wonderful passages on leadership in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Rapkin, who shares a physical likeness to Pete Carroll, USC’s head football coach before the Trojans leader departed for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.

Clearly, leadership is on Rapkin’s mind as he tries to help the district navigate a difficult financial period while working feverishly to maintain the district’s high standards. The last three years alone have seen $12 million cut from the budget. Asked to squeeze more out of less, Rapkin appears to be succeeding.

Every comprehensive school in the district exceeds the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) of 800, and three schools — Gladstone, Oak Mesa, and Shull — have broken through the lofty 900 API barrier. In particular, he proudly points to some 500 students in the district who have moved from “below proficiency” to “above proficiency.”

“When you get to proficiency, it easier to fly,” Rapkin said.

Rapkin quickly defers any credit for the district’s success to the dedicated efforts of the district’s administrative staff, classified employees, teachers, parents and other partners, all working together to best serve the needs of students. He’d rather be the bus driver, map in hand, leading his team to its desired destination.

“My job is trying to get the right people in the right seats on the bus,” Rapkin said.

Before Rapkin took the wheel, it wasn’t always smooth going for the district. The bus traveled some dark alleys and dead-ends (lawsuits) and faced other shortcomings that impeded progress.

“In the past, we might not have had everybody in the right places,” he said diplomatically, referring to the broad sweep of the past two decades before his arrival from the Mountain View School District in El Monte, where he served for more than 11 years.

Despite not knowing how much money will flow from Sacramento, Rapkin likes the district’s current course. The district’s modernization program, made possible by the passage of Measure C, is almost complete. “All 13 schools will have been totally modernized,” Rapkin said.

At the same time, plans for a new gymnasium at Bonita High School and a new district performing arts center, to be located on the San Dimas campus, are with the state architect for review.

District-wide enrollment is also increasing, a testament to the quality of education offered throughout the district. “We are receiving a lot more students from private schools – including ones who left and are now coming back,” Rapkin said.

Still, Rapkin worries. He didn’t get that that thatch of coiffed gray hair from not sweating the details. Stimulus money from Washington helped preserve some positions. “We’ve used every dollar,” Rapkin said. “We’ll take it, but it’s a band-aid; it’s not a long-term solution. It reduces the amount of reductions, but it doesn’t eliminate them altogether.

So far, the district has avoided furlough days and other drastic cuts that other districts have faced. He credits healthy and constructive conversations with all of the district’s partners, including the teacher’s union and school board. “The associations have been absolutely wonderful,” Rapkin acknowledged. “It’s a tribute to their leadership.”

Yet he still worries that despite the district’s overall API proficiency and other achievements, some students are still falling through cracks in the education system.

“The 1000-foot view is, ‘How is the district doing?’” he explained, putting his administrative hat back on. “The 500-foot view is, ‘How is the school doing?’ The 250-foot view is, ‘How is how each department or school doing?’ The 50-foot view is, ‘How is each classroom doing?’ The 25-foot view is, ‘How is each classroom doing?’

“I’m convinced that while parents care about all those views, the one they care about most is that 25-foot view. They’re concerned about how their kid is doing, and that deserves our full attention.”

Rapkin is heartened by the increase in parent participation. “It’s got to be a partnership,” Rapkin said. “We’re seeing a lot more parents come out for reading nights.”

At his direction, district schools are offering more diverse kinds of programs to match the broad spectrum of students who make up the fabric of each campus. There are programs and assemblies that address discipline and lightning rod topics like bullying.

While Rapkin is mindful of teaching to state standards, he doesn’t want to hamstring the creativity or instructional methods of his teachers. He believes education is about more than the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic. The district aims to create well-rounded students that succeed in not only academics, but also the arts and athletics and social engagement.

Success can come from a variety of approaches and styles, he added. Teachers may use a firm or loose rein. “What’s important is that they’re always in control,” Rapkin said.

Nationwide, however, not all teachers feel as if they are in control. Rapkin noted that half of all teachers stop out of the profession after just five years, a serious brain drain and a terrible waste of human resources. Bonita’s attrition rate in nothing like that, but Rapkin still worries. That’s why he is so fixated on teacher leadership and development, using the district’s compact and student-free days to introduce best practices and new leadership concepts, which will give his teachers out on the frontlines new ammunition to take back to their classrooms.

“We’re focused on helping them be better equipped to work at the highest possible level,” Rapkin said.

Rapkin also has reached out to Sacramento, inviting local legislators to visit our campuses and classrooms to get a better sense of the district’s mission and the resources needed to maintain educational excellence. “I think they have walked away with a sense of ‘Well, maybe these stereotypes about schools that we hear and read about aren’t accurate,’” Rapkin said.

In a district, Rapkin worries that administrators, staff, teachers, parents and students will be complacent that they’re doing already doing enough. They need only point to those improving API scores.

Rapkin responds by quoting management guru, Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great.” Good is the enemy of great, and that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.”

At this point in his career, Rapkin, who lives in nearby Sierra Madre, has his sights on greatness.

“I’d rather our students shoot for targets up here,” he said, stretching his right arm toward the ceiling, “than shoot down here and hit them.”

For that to happen, Rapkin is going to need everyone on the bus, in the right seats and focused on the journey ahead. He’s well aware that as the main driver of the educational process, he faces a long road ahead, never knowing for sure what’s around the next bend.

Does he have everyone on board that he needs?

“On a whole, yes,” he answered. “But it’s always fascinating. Do you know how when you paint one room of your house, let’s say, your living room, and it looks great. But all of a sudden, the kitchen and dining room that you thought looked great before, now don’t so look so nice.

“Well, that’s where we are. We’ll never stop asking questions or pushing ourselves. In the end, we’re not about making tires. We’re about helping kids succeed.”

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