Impact Stories

  • Bill Hall

An Interview with John Nickerson, Ed.D., Superintendent of AUSHD

According to the American Educational Research Journal, California has one of the highest rates of Superintendent turnover. Given the data that the average tenure for a Superintendent is only 2-3 years, Walamorinda has clearly bucked this trend.

John Nickerson, Ed.D. has been Superintendent of the Acalanes Union High School District for 10 years and is looking forward to 10 more. Much of this can be attributed to his fantastic leadership and the support of the community. I was lucky to have stolen thirty minutes out of John’s very busy schedule to talk about his insights into the relationship between Acalanes District Schools, the community, and LPIE. You’ll find this informative and interesting so let’s dig in.

Note: the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) is the local high school district, comprising Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda, and Walnut Creek. Each city’s education foundation provides funding to its local high school, with LPIE supporting Acalanes High School in Lafayette.

Bill Hall: I’ve heard you have an interesting professional journey leading up to being Superintendent of AUHSD. Would you mind sharing your career journey and how it led to becoming Superintendent of AUHSD?

John Nickerson: Well, I didn’t actually go to school thinking I would get into education. I know many do, but this was not my journey. After school, I felt I needed a break and wanted to explore. I also had a sense that I wanted to give back and contribute to some sort of greater good. This led me to sign up for a six-month volunteering commitment in a small town in Kenya. Part of the requirement was that I had to teach. I immediately found my passion in education and the six-month assignment turned into two years. During this time, I became the headmaster of the school, which then led to a deep interest in educational leadership. From there, I taught at PS 3 in New York City (interest alert: for those that don’t know this, PS 3 is in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, also known as Bed-Stuy). Since I’m from California, I felt a constant and gentle calling to return home. This led me to teaching locally at Piedmont, which then led to becoming Principal at Acalanes, and now ten years as Superintendent of Acalanes High School District. I’ve been lucky to have found my work calling and enjoy it immensely.

Bill Hall: Did you ever think you’d be a Superintendent working through a global pandemic and can you share how Acalanes appears to have been forward thinking in creating a Wellness Center. Talk about fortune timing, right?

John Nickerson: Absolutely not! Even though we didn’t see this coming, I have to give credit to the Acalanes administration, teachers, LPIE, and the community. This has been extremely challenging, but thanks to everyone working so closely together, AUHSD as a whole is doing far better than most, even with some of the lowest funding from the state. And yes, it has been incredibly fortunate that Acalanes has a Wellness Center.

Momentum for the Wellness Center started in 2015 when we were seeing a rise in anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, and stress in teens. A task force collected data and explored mental health support models which led to swift action to open the Wellness Centers in our district.

Many people don’t know this, but Acalanes acts as a model school for student wellness across California. We even have a partnership with Stanford to understand and address student wellness.

To put it straight, with Covid-19, we’ve seen a rise in student requests for wellness support.This would not be possible with the community’s support of LPIE. So, with that, on behalf of Acalanes, we would like to thank the community for their donations to LPIE. Like everything else in a world with Covid-19, the Wellness Center has had to pivot even while experiencing increased demand.

Looking forward, the Wellness Center is going to continue to address what still appears to be a stigma within students asking for help. The Wellness Center is here for any student that feels overwhelmed, uncertain, or concerned. There is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone asking for help anytime. These are amazingly challenging times with great uncertainty and concern. The Wellness Center is here for any student. We’re happy to talk.

Bill Hall: You talked about funding from LPIE; can you give us a sense of what Acalanes would do without the community’s donations through LPIE?

John Nickerson: Oh wow, it’s challenging enough right now. I don’t even want to think about what would happen but here goes: right now, Acalanes rivals some of the top Bay Area private schools in terms of support services and educational enrichment programs. Many people don’t understand that AUHSD is one of the lowest funded school districts in California, and California is one of the lower funded states in the Union. Without the community’s support of LPIE, all of Acalanes enrichment programs would be immediately halted and the Wellness Center would have to be ceased, as a start. This means that counseling services, wellness, and college level labs would no longer be available. Quite honestly, Acalanes would be drastically different without the community’s support through LPIE. Thanks to the strong support from the Lafayette community and their commitment to health and a supportive and enriched educational journey, this is something I hope I won’t have to think about any time soon. Thank you Lafayette community for supporting our schools through LPIE!

Bill Hall: For background, LPIE has approximately $2 million in long-term investments (our “rainy-day” reserve fund.) These investments have not previously been used as we have been able to cover our obligations to the Districts from fundraising. In this current environment, we anticipate using up to 24% of this reserve to maintain LPIE’s funding levels to Lafayette schools this year. What does this look like and mean to you?

John Nickerson: First, we are so thankful that these reserves are in place. Again, thank you to the community and LPIE. Quite honestly, these reserves have been a critical lifeline for Acalanes. With Covid-19, like everyone, Acalanes has had to work through some major pivoting and doing so effectively and quickly, which has a financial requirement. In short, all administrators and teachers were passionate about doing everything we could to ensure that the students weren’t short changed. Again, this has costs associated with it. Thanks to LPIE dipping into its reserves, we had no cuts in any programs anywhere. If these reserves weren’t available, programs would have had to have been cut. So yes, those reserves were definitely a lifeline and immensely helpful.

Bill Hall: Considering what we’ve talked about above, how does the district come up with its priorities for funding from LPIE?

John Nickerson: Like most school districts, lots of listening to the teachers, students, and the community. The process actually starts in January prior to the following year. Acalanes looks at the needs of the school year and creates a list of needs, wants, and priorities. From there, it’s the typical process of looking at the costs, funding, and any sort of shortfalls. It’s at this junction that we sit down with LPIE in order to gain commitment and financial pledges. I have to add here that we are exceptionally lucky that the relationship between the educational foundation and its schools is so close. This makes the process extremely supportive and easy. I know I’ve said this a few times, but the support of the community through LPIE is fantastic and makes a world of difference for the student’s educational journey.

Bill Hall: LPIE funds sections (aka elective classes) at Acalanes (Ethnic Studies, for example). Tell us how new sections get started?

John Nickerson: This is similar to how priorities are set. Acalanes prioritizes based on a process that mostly grows from parents, students, and teachers, which results in teachers creating a formal proposal. These proposals are usually submitted in the Fall and, if approved, are released in the Winter. Take for example what you mentioned in your question: Ethnic Studies. Thanks to parent, student, and teacher involvement, Acalanes was again ahead of the curve on this. This section was offered prior to the national interest in ethnic studies and as a result, enrollment has grown. Right now, Acalanes offers 20 elective courses and the offerings continue to evolve and adapt as focus and interests change. This really is a great example of what happens when there is such a great relationship in the community between the community members, the educational foundation, and its schools. Believe me, this is rare.

Bill Hall: Being a Superintendent is an extremely challenging job: managing administrators, teachers, students, community interest, all in a state that underfunds its schools. Now adding a global pandemic adds a third dimension to the challenge. Have you picked up a favorite hobby during Covid-19 and what is your secret to staying sane?

John Nickerson: Yes, I’ll admit that it has been interesting. I’ve had a lifelong interest in learning the piano. But I’m sad to say, I didn’t touch any ivory, but I promise you that I will someday. One thing I did pick up is walking. It has been incredibly beneficial. My goal is to walk 10K steps a day. We live in such a beautiful area and I’ve learned how a quiet, peaceful walk in nature helps me think more clearly, calmly, and effectively. There are three things that have kept me sane: support of the Lafayette community, support of the Acalanes administration and teachers, and walking. Assuming I’m still sane, this is my secret.