As the new leader of the Central Union High School District in El Centro, this is Ward Andrus’ first full-time position as a permanent superintendent, and so far he said it’s a job fitting him perfectly.
Coming from the Stockton Unified School District, a district of about 40,000 students east of the Bay Area, Andrus last served as an interim assistant superintendent for 16 months. He taught and was an administrator in the district for many years, he said, save for a period as executive director of the Regional Occupational Programs for Placer and Nevada counties.
With Central, the 50-year-old Andrus gets a chance to bring his expertise to a district of about 4,200 students between Central Union, Southwest, and Desert Oasis high schools, the latter being the district’s continuation school, and an adult education program.
“I think what attracted me was it was a very good size as a new superintendent; the right size to learn,” Andrus said during an Aug. 14 interview, just three days into the new school year. “I’ve already visited 30 classrooms by day three.”
Andrus came on board June 17 to replace former Superintendent Renato Montano, who left the district to take an assistant superintendent position at the Imperial County Office of Education. In this first year he is not going to “rock the boat,” but instead “just build on the good things that are here,” Andrus insisted.
“I look forward to getting to know the community, parents and students. Getting to know the community is important to me,” he said. “I realize the impact our schools have all over the region --- our graduates go everywhere,” he added.
The Central district quickly impressed him, he revealed.
“We have the highest college-going rate in the county, according to the state Department of Education. That speaks to the strength of our school district,” he said.
As Andrus settled in he said he is taking stock of all the new and ongoing projects in the district that were set in motion long before he got here.
At Southwest, for instance, he said a new library will be completed this fall, and in the next month, a $2 million kitchen/classroom/working eatery known as “Kafe 56” will be completed for use by the culinary arts program at the campus on Ocotillo Avenue.
At Central on Brighton Avenue, work continued on the campus’ $30 million Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) building, where the area has begun to take shape with 30-foot columns visible as one passes by the campus.
Construction will continue through the school year, with a scheduled move-in sometime in 2021, Andrus said. Meantime, work continues on its “quad,” the central campus gathering area. New concrete and widened pathways went down this summer, and landscaping and final construction will wrap up by summer 2020.
At Desert Oasis, on Ross Avenue just east of the district offices, new student restrooms were constructed this year.
“And, of course, our schools have had ongoing maintenance and repairs, new air-conditioners, new paving, the typical summer stuff,” Andrus said.
“Each school has its own focus and emphasis,” he said. “I’m not bringing anything new this year. I’m just a learner right now.”
Southwest has its International Baccalaureate program (a college preparatory system), he added, as well as the award-winning Health Occupation Students of America Club and the Southwest Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts.
Central features the always-stellar Great Spartan Band program and focuses on numerous career technical education pathways that including computer coding, its law enforcement academy and programs to get “students being college and career-prepared after graduation,” Andrus said.
At Desert Oasis, Andrus added, there is a new “first-responder” class taught by a local firefighter. The class is connected to the fire science program at Imperial Valley College.
“All of these programs and activities,” he said, “they enrich and enhance learning beyond the classroom.”
Andrus isn’t simply waiting around to make his mark, though. The veteran educator is in what he calls a three-phase “entry plan” to proactively become closer to the community, staff and students. Phase one was “logistics,” he explained, meaning it was the act of taking the job, and moving his family to El Centro, where he has already purchased a home. With four grown children and three grandchildren, it is just Andrus and his wife of 28 years, Deborah Andrus, who is a new English teacher at the Imperial Unified School District.
Now in phase two of his entry plan, he has spent the summer meeting with “anyone, to hear their concerns or compliments. It informs where we go next,” Andrus added, saying phase two will last through September.
Phase three will be to develop a road map: “What do we add or what do we do differently to enhance or increase our student achievement?” he asked rhetorically.
By January, he said he hopes to introduce some new ideas to the district board of trustees, with a set of defined goals in place by spring.
Noting he talks to each school board member weekly, he said: “They are engaged and want the very best for students.”
Andrus said he already knows that he will have some focus on increasing the district’s career technical education pathways because that was his expertise at Stockton Unified and the Placer/Nevada ROP occupational programs.
It’s that experience with getting students career-ready that made him so attractive to the school board, said Diahna Garcia-Ruiz, board president.
“He brings so much background with CTE, and that’s something new to us,” she said during an Aug. 14 interview.
“We need to make sure we put kids out there that are career-ready, and ready for the real world,” Garcia-Ruiz added, explaining there is pressure to get students ready for college when college isn’t the right fit for some.
Andrus has innovative ways to look at career tech, including developing college-based pathways to becoming a teacher, for instance.
“He brings new vision, and a different perspective” when it comes to career tech, she said.
Andrus acknowledged he does have plans to “build around STEM and Career Technical Education.”
To that end, he said he wants to see “better communication tools developed for both parents and students” regarding student preparation. Gone will be the days when all a parent and student got to mark their high school progress was a report card.
Instead, Andrus said he wants to have a report twice a year that draws from a variety of sources and lets parents and students know the students’ “steps to graduate” and have them “be career-ready” with “a plan” for what they’ll do after leaving high school.
But first, Andrus is still listening and taking it all in.
“As a leader coming into the district, I get to build upon the greatness that is already here.” Andrus said. “It’s a real joy to build on the work of my predecessors.”