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Superintendent's Letters

Monday, September 11, 2023

Superintendent Diego Ochoa

Systemic Changes, not short-term fixes
SMFC maintains high CAASPP scores sets the foundation for long-term success

Dear San Mateo-Foster City Community,
Establishing a new strategic vision can be risky business. A lot can go wrong. There are always roadblocks and barriers impeding change. In the education world, it can sometimes take years to create a Strategic Plan, and the plans can end up falling by the wayside.  In the San Mateo-Foster City School District, we embarked on a Strategic Plan process in August 2021 to initiate changes to how reading, math, and science are taught. Through collaborative efforts, our top-tier teachers and administrators have ushered in best practices. In a few weeks, the California Department of Education will finalize all school districts’ summative test scores. We recently published our preliminary summative test scores. The good news? Our scores have remained high, which is remarkable given how fundamentally we’ve changed our instructional practices and how we’ve avoided implementing the traditional “test prep” approach to raise scores.

As a veteran educator, I lived through the days of the Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and the test prep infatuation. Thanks to our Strategic Plan process, we prioritize teaching over testing – true learning versus simply training. We simply don’t teach to the test. We don’t create elaborate test prep lessons or test prep camps. We don’t identify “target students” who can move from one test score range to the next.  We’ve greatly reduced our own “internal tests” as well. Our internal tests are brief, and we use the results to offer students more support.  We previously implemented tests that took weeks to administer and translated into lost instructional time. Those days are over.

In doing so, we were not concerned with increasing test prep, finding silver bullets, or implementing quick fixes. We weren’t looking for a 5% bump in scores. As Superintendent, I implore district and school leaders to focus on how students are taught and to avoid the urge to create temporary test score gains. Our Strategic Plan aimed to change the conditions that annually produced achievement gaps. The inevitable question will be posed: Why are we changing what we do? Our main concern is finding the best way to teach our students.

We have embraced research-backed strategies that demand rigor and promote engagement.  We’ve also hired over 40 teachers on special assignment who mentor, coach, and support their colleagues every day. These teacher experts help us improve instruction in reading, math, science, STEM, and English language development. We have invested in system-wide professional growth. Our district has also initiated innovative approaches (PAF Reading, Footsteps 2 Brilliance, ST Math, Zearn, Math Mindset Routines, and Desmos) to teaching reading and math.

Recognizing the significant impact of high-quality literacy instruction, the district has invested millions in our system of teacher coaches, new instructional materials, and professional development. The result? After twelve months, more kindergarten and first grade students are reading at grade level.

We have also secured millions of preschool dollars to ensure that more children have access to comprehensive early learning opportunities. I am pleased to report that we have opened numerous new preschool classrooms serving kids in the North Central, Sunnybrae, Laurel, Park, and Lead neighborhoods. We have also redesigned administrative leadership in this department to ensure effective student recruitment and to pursue programmatic improvements in our preschool academic instruction.

Gone are the days of teaching methods that keep students in rows completing worksheets. I’m proud to report that our middle schools will have more kids taking Algebra than we’ve had in over a decade, maybe longer.This year, we increased spending on arts and music education by 35% over last year. We’ve also implemented new intersession and summer camps focused on engineering, arts, and targeted academics. We are seeing a wave of meaningful teacher collaboration and student engagement.

Professional development increasingly remains  a critical aspect of our commitment to excellence in teaching. Prior to the adoption of the Strategic Plan, we had very few district wide professional development events. We have since offered five full days of summer training for our teachers, offered twice each summer to accommodate summer travel plans. We now equip our teachers with the necessary tools and knowledge to deliver effective instruction. Our stellar teachers create a culture of continuous growth and improvement and implement cutting edge practices. 

One of our most exciting accomplishments has been the integration of innovative STEM programs like LEGO and college and career readiness courses into our curricula. Programs like LEGO Robotics offer our students hands-on experiences with engineering, like coding, that foster collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Through our College and Career Readiness program in partnership with Paxton and Patterson, we empower our students to explore diverse career pathways and develop essential skills for immediate and future success. Our College and Career Readiness is a highly sought-after elective course on our campuses.

We are proud of the systemic changes we’ve made. We also know that collaboration and parental support are pivotal elements in achieving our goals. We value your partnership in this work and the integral role you play in our educational ecosystem. Thank you for your unwavering dedication to the betterment of our schools. Together, we can continue to foster an environment that nurtures growth, unlocks potential, and ensures student success, not just for today but for years to come.

Superintendent Ochoa's Signature
Diego R. Ochoa


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