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photo credit: Courtesy the Campaign of Ron Meza Calloway
"So since 2017, not one student has had a normal school year in Sonoma County."

For current Mark West Union School District Superintendent Ron Meza Calloway the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which he calls the “most impactful time” of his career, was only the start of five straight years of extraordinary circumstances. A new era of disruption and abnormality in students' lives, from fires, evacuations, suffocating smoke to pandemic lock downs.

Meza Calloway, who has led the Mark West district for the past 11 years, said the Tubbs Fire left his district in ruin.
 
"Obviously the area itself was completely devastated and it taught me a lot about how to deal with things, dealing with FEMA, dealing with all the agencies." Meza Calloway said.

Meza Calloway said he believes that experience has him uniquely prepared to lead the Sonoma County Office of Education.
 
"To bring back students we had to move a campus in one weekend to two other campuses and, and create classrooms in gyms for a while. So we could continue our education after the fire." Meza Calloway said.

With Covid still looming large, he said keeping students in classrooms is important to ensure quality education.
 
"If we do have a bump up, I could see a masking mandate come back into the classrooms. But I, to be honest, I do not foresee us ever going back to distance learning. We did not serve our students in any way with a distance learning, because there were so many people who got left behind." Meza Calloway said.

Now, with the return of in-person instruction, Meza Calloway said student well-being is central.
 
"And that's one of the platforms I have is making sure we address the mental health of our students so that then they can address the academic issues that they face." Meza Calloway said.

Another major issue Meza Calloway identified is literacy for elementary age students.
 
"Because of the last two years of COVID, there's going to be a big push for literacy in our community. We need to have all children reading by third grade. So then when they go off to fourth, through ninth and into the high school, they can address a through G curriculum. And if they so choose, they can choose any pathway they want." Meza Calloway said.

Meza Calloway said literacy begins well before students ever set foot in a classroom.

"For me, literacy begins at two years of age, and that means rich literature being read to. And it doesn't matter whether it's English or Spanish, it's just having vocabulary development in that process. So that by the time you hit kindergarten, there is not a one million word gap." Meza Calloway said.

He said the office he's running for has the ability to make a direct impact.
 
"And this is where the county office of education does have authority over is to work with preschools work with childcare centers, work with nonprofits to address that need of providing rich literacy centers." Meza Calloway said.

He also said he recognizes the need to pay attention to older students and re-examine curricula for them.

"We have students who are disengaged, and we need to look at the curriculum in the seven through 12 arena to get them engaged." Meza Calloway said.

Meza Calloway said he recognizes a need to build options.

"The piece here is working with the local school districts to create avenues of support and educational systems." Meza Calloway said.

He sees work experience programs as one of those avenues.

"So looking at pilot programs, for example, Petaluma has started in this process of re-imagining what their high school process is. We have students who are going to school just to click a button, right? I mean, just to check the box. So that's why you look at this work based educational piece. All those pieces need to be brought forward for students to look at those different pathways, engage in those pathways, get credit high school credit for that work." Meza Calloway said.

Meza Calloway said using alternative programs is also necessary to help some of Sonoma County’s most at-risk students, like those at the county’s court and community school, which the office of education directly oversees.
 
"I think that we need to re-look at work based learning in those classes, because obviously if you're already into that realm, we need to change your trajectory. And we need to find ways to support you. We want you to reenter the regular K through 12 system. We also need to engage you in things that will impact you as well and make you want to be at school." Meza Calloway said.

He pointed to major challenges posed by structural budget shortfalls in education, and said the model of funding has major impacts for local districts.
 
"So in California, the budgets are based on Prop 98 and how that is fed is mostly through personal income tax. The top 1% feed in about 50% of the taxes in the Prop 98. That top 1% is pretty much based on capital gains, which is the stock market. So if we go into recession, people will not invest and we will have less funding in Prop 98." Meza Calloway said.

Meza Calloway said with projected declines in budgets for individual districts, painful but necessary measures will be inevitable.
 
"Like I said, the reserves are gonna be huge coming forward, because if you don't have that reserve, you're gonna face some financial situations that are going be very difficult. Obviously there'll be layoffs, cutbacks in educational programs. Programs mean people. So every time someone says a program, that means a person." Meza Calloway said.
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