School boards in action: 5 questions with Chris Ungar, San Luis Coastal USD

In the midst of a global pandemic, local educational agency boards have continued working to support programs and initiatives that offer students the academic and social-emotional opportunities they need — no matter which mode of instruction they are in. CSBA’s 5 questions series gives board members a chance to share the accomplishments of their LEAs and their experiences during this challenging time in their own words.

Chris Ungar, board president, San Luis Coastal Unified School District and CSBA Past President

How long have you been on the school board and why are you passionate about your work?  

I’m in my 21st year as a trustee, and I’m passionate about governance, student achievement and equity.

What is the most successful initiative your board has spearheaded during the pandemic?

Working with our cities and the YMCA to create child care programs for families in need and combining them with our “learning pods,” which provided targeted support for students needing extra assistance. We also developed a model of small group intervention called Small Group Instruction where teachers invite specific students into a personalized Zoom meeting for academic-related interventions or social-emotional connection.

What has been your board’s biggest challenge during the pandemic and how are you working to overcome it?

The learning loss we have documented for our students, especially those considered socioeconomically disadvantaged and English learners. First, we documented the learning loss through assessments (and) we created learning pods. We implemented small group instruction and gave all students Chromebooks. Those without internet access were given hot spots (an initiative we had begun several years ago). We ramped up our meal program, assigned a school counselor to be a teacher on special assignment for coordination of social-emotional learning, increased parent communication, used our education foundation to fund and create monthly STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] kits for all students, created a strong and exciting summer learning program and worked with a contractor to create and monitor our safety plan(s).

What is the biggest misconception you’ve heard about school boards/education during the pandemic? 

I suppose that there has been (and will remain) a thought that school boards have a role that is managerial, as opposed to policy/governance. Another misconception has to do with the extent of authority that school boards possess outside of state and federal mandates. The pandemic’s safety rules and governing policies were created by state and federal agencies for local school boards to implement.

What are your hopes for the future of your district both short and long term? 

That we get students back on campus full time in fall 2021; that our summer learning program is successful; that the investments we’ve made in technology are not dropped by the wayside; and that we can provide a strong multi-tiered system of support for all students. The ultimate goal is to dramatically reduce achievement gaps between student groups and to create enhanced opportunities for all students.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.