Real champions inspire us because we know they give everything to make a difference. Through this column, we are helping make known real champions in the lives of children and youth. At NCUST, we are thankful for all the many equity champions who are, each day, changing lives, changing schools, and changing communities.
One of Superintendent Gabriela Mafi’s older siblings referred to their family as “upper poor.” “We weren’t the poorest family,” she explained, “but we grew up in South Los Angeles in a three-bedroom house, where my three sisters and I shared a bed in one bedroom and my two brothers shared a bed in the second bedroom.” Both her mom (who immigrated from Mexico) and her dad (who served with the Marines in the Korean War) graduated from high school, but never attended college. Gabriela attended seven different schools between kindergarten and 11th grade before dropping out and acquiring her high school proficiency certificate. She attended four community colleges (while working as a donut shop clerk, a waitress, a hostess, and as a bartender) before ultimately graduating from college and earning a teaching credential.
Now, after serving as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, and superintendent, she still gets angry when she sees educators demonstrate low expectations for children of color or children who live in low-income communities. “To me, it’s almost like you’re doing more disservice than a segregationist if you’re approaching kids with a “pobrecito” (poor baby) attitude. We act like we’re being nice when we’re giving poor kids limited choices in respect to going to college, but everyone is not giving them the same message we give to middle class or rich kids.” Superintendent Mafi is convinced that she and her colleagues in the Garden Grove Unified School District can change the trajectory of their students’ lives if they provide each child the right combination of support, encouragement, and push.
With almost 40,000 students, Garden Grove is one of the largest school districts in California and is widely recognized as one of the most successful. Six Garden Grove schools have earned NCUST’s America’s Best Urban Schools Award for outstanding learning outcomes for all demographic groups and many of the district’s schools are close to meeting NCUST’s award criteria. When asked why Garden Grove has achieved so many successes, Superintendent Mafi cites stability as one primary factor. She has been the district superintendent for nine years and her predecessor, Laura Schwalm was the district’s superintendent for 16 years. Additionally, the district has remarkable stability among principals, teachers, and other personnel. The district has worked hard to establish a culture in which personnel feels valued and respected. “You’re never better than your teachers,” Superintendent Mafi explained, “So, I invest time in getting to know our teaching staff, as well as our classified staff. It is so important to build those relationships and support all our amazing team members. I know all the teachers in this district.”
Another important factor has been the continuous improvement of instruction in ways that align with high expectations for all groups of students. Throughout the district, educators have been committed to challenging old approaches and improving everyday practices, programs, and procedures in ways that generate better results for the students of Garden Grove.
Finally, Superintendent Mafi explained that although the district is large, “We keep it small by keeping a focus on relationships and treating the kids like they’re our own.” Superintendent Mafi spends a considerable amount of time visiting schools and classrooms, meeting with school, district, and community leaders, and talking with the many students she personally mentors. With her 100 mentees in the classes of 2020 and 2021 having graduated, she launched a new group of 6th graders last year and will work with them regularly until they graduate (and she retires). By keeping in touch with the student experience, she stays focused on the importance of district goals. The students help her keep in mind that “what we do and what we don’t do makes a difference in students’ lives.”
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