In New Board President Role, O’Brien Stands Up For FUSD

Jason O’Brien has been elevated to the position of president of the Fontana School Board, two years after he was elected to the panel overseeing the 37,000-student Fontana Unified School District and its 29 elementary schools, seven middle schools, seven high schools and an adult school as part of a reformist wave two years ago.
“I am honored to have been elected as the new Fontana Unified School Board president for 2018-2019,” O’Brien said. “As the very first African-American elected to serve in this role, I am indebted to the spirit of the ‘American Dream,’ which I believe is important to the motivation and perseverance of all children.”
O’Brien’s assumption of the board president duties follows by a little less than two months another school board election that saw the district shed incumbent Matt Slowik, while hanging on to Mary Sandoval, Mars Serna and Adam Perez.
O’Brien now heads the district’s trustees, who include Peter Garcia, also elected in 2016.
Having run on a platform of enhancing campus security, eliminating bullying and intimidation among students and emphasizing the district’s math and science curriculum with an eye toward training future engineers and physicians, O’Brien has passed his two-year milestone with some satisfaction at what has been achieved so far but looking to double down on that commitment.
“In this newly acquired leadership role, I intend to work hard on behalf of Fontana students by addressing pertinent issues that have been identified by parents and community stakeholders, which include more student intervention programs, continued access to local mentors and leaders, improved student achievement in the areas of math and science, and more financial scholarship opportunities,” O’Brien said. “Our students need to be exposed early on to the possible career opportunities that await them in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Through partnerships with Inland Empire businesses and academic institutions, Fontana students will have access to internships and summer programs that provide the foundation for learning and foster an interest in these areas.”
Part of his role as board president, O’Brien said, will entail getting the word out so those who are not taking full advantage of what the district has to offer will avail themselves of the awaiting opportunities.
“Over the past couple of years, I think our board of education leaders have been effective in being visible and accessible to staff and district,” he said. “I plan to continue this level of access as the new president, and to go a step further by publicizing the great achievements of our district to the community at large. A great deal of positive information about the academic achievement of our students goes unnoticed, and I want to work with our board and superintendent to increase the spotlight on these important accomplishments. Many working and commuting residents don’t visit the district’s social media platforms and websites, so we have to find more creative ways to get the word out.”
O’Brien, who is employed as a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and is married to a former school board member, said “For the most part, I believe the majority of Fontana residents understand how much has been accomplished under our current leadership. The election on November 6th resulted in the re-election of two out of three board of education incumbents. This is reassuring. As a board, we are very diverse in our professional experiences, backgrounds and education. This is something that benefits the community tremendously, and I consider it one of our greatest strengths. The various perspectives that we bring to the table help us empathize and understand the challenges faced by our students. This is something that evidently resonates with our community as well.”
Under his watch, O’Brien said, the district’s faculty and staff will not lose focus on the fundamental mission of Fontana’s schools, which is to educate students so that as they mature they will be equipped to make their way in the world.
“One of the key areas that we continue working to improve are student test scores,” O’Brien said. “We want the majority of our students to be proficient or advanced in the core subjects, and although we are not quite there, we are encouraged by the increase in test scores each year that we continue to see. For example, the percentage of Fontana Unified District students that met or exceeded proficiency in English language arts increased by five percent from 2017 to 2018, and in math we increased by nearly four percent.”
In years past, Fontana’s municipal political leadership had a firm grip on the district, and the mayor and city council dominated, for the most part, the school board. That is no longer the case and in recent weeks, Fontana’s mayor, Acquanetta Warren, made statements somewhat critical of the state of education in the city, which were widely interpreted as criticism of the school district and the school board. Warren said she was declaring a “state of emergency” with regard to education in the city and was ready to “go to war” to “fix” the problem.
O’Brien sought to avoid overreaction to what some considered a political provocation.
“I think that when any community leader or elected official perceives there to be a problem, then the response should be to promote collaboration and cooperation, as opposed to adopting an adversarial stance that projects a combative spirit. We must remain professional and level-headed because our community counts on us to do so. Using words like ‘war’ to describe anything affiliated with children, families and school district personnel is not something I would recommend. Everyone is entitled to his or her perception and opinion; however, it is important that we not politicize education and attempt to incite fear to manipulate voters.”
O’Brien cited some district achievements to drive home his assertion that the situation is not as dire as the mayor was suggesting.
“In addition to improved test scores, we have also been recognized for other noteworthy recent achievements,” O’Brien said. “Southridge Middle School is one of only 40 schools in the United States to be named a Microsoft Showcase School for transformational leadership and the improvement of student outcomes. Dorothy Grant and Chaparral Elementary are the first two schools in the Inland Empire to become “Code to the Future Schools” – the nation’s leading immersive science curricula that engages students in technology-and-coding based lessons. California Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez named school counselor Julie Bello ‘2018 Educator of the Year’ for her success in using mini robots to teach students leadership skills and instill college and career readiness. The Fontana Unified School District and the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools named Theresa Pearce ‘Teacher of the Year’ for her guidance that led students to win California State and local science competitions.”
When the Sentinel suggested that O’Brien might use Mayor Warren’s declaration as an opportunity to press her and other city officials to back up her characterization by earmarking a portion of the city’s treasury to fund education programs to augment the district’s function, he said, “I don’t see this as a budget issue, as most of the district funding comes from the state. I interpret the recent public remarks that you mentioned to be an attempt at undermining confidence in the district’s leadership. This is being done for political reasons, and not in the interest of children. There are important issues in our city to be addressed. Just the other day, my wife and I went for a walk on the Fontana Pacific Electric Trail, and sidestepped a number homeless residents lying on the ground. I would be very encouraged if the city’s leadership openly declared war on poverty and homelessness, and began focusing its efforts in that direction.”
O’Brien indicated he thought it best that both the city and the district devote themselves and the focus of their elected leaderships and staffs to their respective duties. Just as he did not believe the city or its mayor should be trying to second guess the district or the school board when it comes to administering and managing Fontana’s schools, he did not see it as his place to be critical of the city’s accommodation of developmental interests. A primary consequence of the city’s willingness to go along with intensive and aggressive land use is an expansion in residential development that has put Fontana, now at a population of 210,000, on the brink of eclipsing San Bernardino as the county’s largest city. This has carried with it an enlarging student population which some believe is burdening the school district.
Asked if he thought Mayor Warren and her city council colleagues were in some measure responsible for the problems in the city’s educational system about which she has been so vocal as of late because the city in the past failed to impose upon the developers profiting by the development that has occurred in Fontana sufficient requirements to offset the burdens on the district that development entails, O’Brien said, “The number of students in the district is not a problem for us. We are not experiencing overcrowding for the most part. More than 85 percent of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and so there are many built-in challenges that accompany children living in poverty. This is why the city leadership should focus its attention addressing homeless, economic development, and attracting middle class jobs. Our students have less of a hill to climb when their basic needs are met.”
Mark Gutglueck

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