A conversation with … CSBA President Emma Turner

Emma Turner is a trustee of the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District in east San Diego, a TK-8 district with about 12,300 students. Turner is particularly proud of the work the district does in its Literacy Academy, Arts Academy and STEAM Academy. She has been involved in CSBA since her second year as a board member in 2007.

Tell us a little about your background including your own K-12 education and professional experience.

I’m a lifelong learner, and that is unusual because I didn’t have a smooth start in education. I began K-12 in a deficit; I didn’t have the support at home to help me with my education and I didn’t have the support at school either. I soon learned that I would have to assimilate to fit in, or not get what I needed out of the system. I finished high school and one year of college and decided to join the Navy, where I could also finish my education. I was learning skills in the Navy while I was also getting my degree.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. In the ’60 and ’70s, that was not a good time for a young, black woman in that atmosphere. I was stationed in San Diego as a prosecutor for the Navy and I ended up teaching law school in the Navy as well. Once I retired, we decided (my husband and our kids) to stay in San Diego.

What from your naval experience do you draw on today as you are doing your work in education?

Everything. The Navy taught me how to lead, how to manage, how to organize and how to get things done under any set of conditions. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be manageable — and the Navy taught me that. I am forever grateful for that education. I apply those lessons I learned in the Navy to whatever I do now in the volunteer world, my focus being K-12 education.

“If we are the fifth largest economy in the world, why are we not putting the money we need toward educating our kids? How are we going to move on and maintain our legacy and position in the world without giving the needed resources to our future leaders?”

What do you think are some of the primary areas that CSBA can focus on to help drive the education agenda and improve outcomes for today’s students?

CSBA is doing a really good job with the focus areas including full and fair funding. Everything that CSBA does needs to ultimately culminate in the fact that we have to have achievement for all students. We have been working on the achievement gap forever, not just in California, but around the nation. We have to solve that problem. I think right now CSBA is on the right track by focusing on equity.

Can you discuss some of the most pressing issues facing California public schools?

The number one thing I would like to see is no more achievement gap. That will require California and the nation to put funding for education first. We have to have full and fair funding and then we can achieve that goal of no more achievement gap. We need to ensure that our kids, our future leaders, are prepared. California is the fifth largest economy in the world — we have the funds. If we are the fifth largest economy in the world, why are we not putting the money we need toward educating our kids? How are we going to move on and maintain our legacy and position in the world without giving the needed resources to our future leaders? We just need to wake up and do the right thing.

What do you see as the challenges to these goals?

I don’t think everyone is focusing on the importance of education. It’s a cliché to say, “These are our future leaders.” But we need to really understand what that means. It means we support them to the point where they can be leaders, or what is the opposite of that? Where will be if we don’t do that? We will slide further and further back. The United States is not where it needs to be in terms of prestige — and California is part of that — as it used to be years ago. We continue to lose ground. We need to make that up by making our kids the next global leaders. I think, in California, we are further along than in some states, but none of our states are as far as they need to be in terms of education.

One of the big challenges/opportunities for board members is involving their communities in the Local Control Funding Formula, the Local Control and Accountability Plan and the California School Dashboard. Do you have any thoughts on how board members can engage with their communities?

It is so key to have your stakeholders around you and supporting you. What has to happen is communication. Communication is key. As board members, we don’t need to sit back and wait to be contacted, we need to initiate that communication and we need to do that periodically. We don’t need to wait until something bad happens and then reach out and try to get your side of the story out. We need to be proactive. We need to have a process in place to make contact on a periodic basis to bring in our community leaders, our business partners, our government partners, parents, teachers and students — we all need to be working together. We have to include students so they will understand where we are going with their education for them to do well.

As a veteran board member, what advice would you give to new or aspiring board members?

I would give then the advice that I took myself from a very learned school board member, Sharon Jones: get involved. Get involved early, before you seek an elected or appointed position. Know the issues that are going on around your community. You need to know all of the issues and do whatever work is necessary to make sure kids are learning.

“CSBA is the key to teaching school board members how to be effective school board members.”

Why would you encourage board members to get involved with CSBA?

Governance is so important for a board member. Governance includes the team in the district — the board members and the super intendent — all working together to ensure kids are learning and getting the best out of their district. I would definitely recommend CSBA because you can learn so much — especially new school board members. You can learn from the beginning how to govern effectively and what good governance looks like. There are the Masters in Governance courses, the new board member course, Brown Act training. CSBA is the key to teaching school board members how to be effective school board members.

This interview was originally published in California Schools magazine.