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New Superintendent Brings Fresh Outlook to District

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

July 21 – “Risk-taker,” “passionate child advocate,” “personable,” with a “great sense of humor” – these were some of the words used to describe Dianne Talarico when she was introduced as the School District’s new superintendent at a Board of Education meeting Thursday afternoon.

Talarico is followed by a legacy of forceful change and a reputation for increasing academic achievement, and the school board expressed high hopes for her impact on Westside schools when she takes the reins August 14.

“We’re all very relieved that we’ve found you and we welcome you to Santa Monica-Malibu and we know that you will take us to the next step further,” Board Vice-President Kathy Wisnicki told Talarico at a brief meeting following a staff reception for the new superintendent.

“Her talent, her intelligence, her passion and her way with people will be obvious to everyone and will be remarkable assets to our district,” Board member Jose Escarce said. “I fully anticipate that Dianne will be here for a long time,” he added.

Talarico, who began her career as a special education teacher, comes to Santa Monica-Malibu from her hometown of Canton, Ohio, where she was Superintendent for five years.

Before that, she worked for 20 years in San Francisco, where she rose through the administrative ranks to become assistant superintendent responsible for 77 schools and a budget of $130 million. She also taught child development at San Francisco State University.

(Photo by Ann K. Williams)

Her comments to the board Thursday and a review of her past statements give a hint as to her principles and how they will play out in practice when she takes over the district.

“I don’t think you go into a place and fix what’s not broken,” Talarico told the board and the community Thursday.

“I’m not coming with the flavor of the month or the latest package deal about how to improve things here,” she said. “I’m coming in with an openness to really listen to the people.

“I”ll spend a lot of time in the community and at schools during the first months,” Talarico said. “People won’t see me here at the central office very much, it might be a unique experience here.”

Foremost, she will be a champion of the children, Talarico told the board.

“I am one of the strongest child advocates you’ll ever meet,” she said. “If we are ever to get in any kind of dilemma it will be because I think that we may not be taking some positions that are in the best interests of children.”

Three years ago, Talarico gave a hint of what she plans to bring to the district when she listed specific recommendations for school reform during a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Education Reform.

In her testimony as an expert in special education, Talarico argued for expanding “preventive pre-referral intervention services for students who are floundering,” and said she’d instituted such programs in Canton.

“Every school and every teacher knows pretty quickly when students are not succeeding,” Talarico told the subcommittee.

“Students with learning disabilities and emotional disturbance…are too quickly rejected by general educators. We know that over half of those we serve in special education are students with learning and behavior challenges.

“Too often, special education is a place where children of poverty and children of color…can be isolated,” she said.

The program Talarico started in Canton was designed to quickly identify and intervene to help these students and reduce the number served in special education.

She also advocated “high quality early childhood interventions” including family support and health services for children before they begin school.

A thread that ran through her testimony and press reports in Canton was her belief in providing consistent ongoing professional training and using principals as instructional leaders at individual school sites.

The principals “will be expected to set the tone for teaching in their schools,” Talarico told the Canton Repository in 2001.

“We are encouraging staff members to participate in ongoing professional development,” she said. “The one-shot workshop approach that is all too often prevalent is not an effective training approach.”

When the Repository article was written, Talarico had taken on a district that was on Ohio’s “academic watch list,” with a 58 percent graduation rate, dropping enrollment and declining revenue.

Thursday, Board President Julia Brownley lauded Talarico for having increased the Canton schools’ graduation rate by 25 percentage points, raising college admission for graduates from 30 to 65 percent and increasing state test scores.

Some of the Talarico’s innovations in Canton included “downsizing central office staff,” employing “more minority administrators,” making “broader use of computer technology,” implementing standards-based elementary report cards and starting a “new digital academy” offering online instruction, according to the 2001 Repository article.

Talarico is eager to start implementing her reforms in Santa Monica and Malibu.

“I can’t wait to get started,” she said Thursday. “I already feel part of the family and part of the team.”

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