Brandman News

Fire changes everything, as does a doctoral program

September 21, 2018 by Brandman University

Last year about this time, Diann Kitamura could look around her school district and worry about the usual things: attendance figures, academic student growth, salary negotiations. Her own academic career was humming along, and, with the first year of required doctoral coursework behind her, she was ready to tackle the second year of coursework and a dissertation on professional development. 

Diann Kitamura
Diann Kitamura, superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools and a Brandman University Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership candidate.

Then the fires started in Northern California, and by mid-October, Kitamura, the superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools, was faced with students and staff whose homes were destroyed, damaged school campuses and mountains of ash to clean away.

“Tragedy pulls people together,” she said. It also tests resilience, determination, strength and leadership skills. For Kitamura, many of the leadership skills she used during and after the fires that devastated Sonoma County were developed by the Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership program at Brandman University.

“The Ed.D. program supports courageous decisions, risk-taking in order to follow your convictions and be a transformational leader,” she said.

When Kitamura started the Ed.D. program in 2016, she had been superintendent for six months. A dissertation on professional development seemed like a good fit. Now, she’s deep into writing about crisis leadership in schools.

“When the fires hit, I realized there was nothing to fall back on about what a superintendent should do during a crisis of this nature.”

“You’re trained to create a safety plan. A checklist on paper is good to have, but it doesn’t prepare you for the actual crisis leadership that’s needed during a wildfire,” Kitamura said, Keith Larick, Ed.D., her dissertation chair, encouraged her to pivot to a new dissertation topic.

“She’s a great superintendent and an excellent student,” said Larick. “Crisis leadership is a major aspect of leadership. She’ll be able to share a lot of useful experiences (from her research) that school boards and other superintendents can use.”

It’s already started. When fires hit other areas of California this year, it was Kitamura who was fielding questions from her fellow superintendents and offering answers.

A crisis with many facets

Kitamura dealt with three weeks of school closure, the need to clean 2 million square feet of facilities, including the turf on five high school football fields, a destroyed elementary satellite campus that meant making room for 150 students on the main elementary campus, and most importantly, helping students and staff whose homes were damaged or destroyed, more than  880 homes in all and a total of 5,300 in Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa fire
Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa in October 2017. Photo courtesy of Diann Kitamura.

“This was not a forest that burned. These were homes. What comes with burned homes are toxins, and that’s a piece that’s different from other situations that leaders have had to deal with,” she said. There was also the psychological and emotional trauma to the community. 

“The mental health trauma is ongoing. I say it will continue for another 10 to 20 years. I had to ask myself, ‘What do I need to provide that’s different to support students and families?’”

The answer was to create an integrated wellness center specifically for people affected by the fire. Thanks to North Bay Fire Relief, Comcast, an anonymous donation and a larger donation from Kaiser Permanente – $1.8 million in all – a combination clinic, tutoring center, counseling center was created on one of her campuses. The key was to provide help beyond the school day, including evenings, weekends and holidays as part of the plan.

Before the students returned, Kitamura worried about her staff. “One of the things that we did when we returned to school, and I took some heat from other superintendents for it, was I allotted two days for the staff to come back prior to students returning. First was for them to get some care and help and debrief their thoughts and feelings. How do you put staff in front students when they’re not OK?

“The second day, I wanted them in their classrooms to adjust their lesson plans to prepare for students who had been out for three weeks.”

Her plan paid off. Even staff who lost homes came back. “The tangible difference is the prioritization and a recognition of the human connection. That really is how we can educate best.”

Although enrollment went down because some families weren’t able to relocate within in the district, attendance went up. “I attribute that to our students feeling safe at school and nurtured. What we provided educationally is relevant to them. The stress of a parent or a guardian could be forgotten at school. It was a safe place. It was normal. Parents had to take care of insurance, FEMA. They knew they could trust us to take care of their kids.”

Santa Rosa teachers
Teachers welcome back students after three weeks of closure and clean up. Photo courtesy of Diann Kitamura.

“There has been such a sense of togetherness. It’s just this feeling that we have to watch out for each other. It was there before but even stronger now.”

Kitamura was also able to bring in 141 counselors and school psychologists from outside the district to staff her schools on a rotating basis for two weeks.  She is grateful for the other school districts and agencies that provided these counselors and therapists to support the students and staff.

Statewide influence

She also decided not to have her district’s students take the state assessment exams. “We worked with the California Department of Education and filed a request for a waiver. I made the decision with the support of my board, knowing that I would not have a decision back from the U.S. Department of Education until sometime this school year.” 

She also worked with the California School Board Association, state senators, and the Sonoma County Office of Education superintendent to ensure their funding would be protected for the next two years despite a decline in enrollment due to wildfires. “It was approved as part of the budget, and the language in the Education Code changed to support the budgeting of these funds.” [Read more about it here.]

The Ed.D. program gave her the tools, she said, not only to deal with the fires and their aftermath but also with labor negotiations, a change to by trustee area elections, the fear of threats and lockdowns and the reactions to the school shootings at Parkland, Florida, and budget cuts. 

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura survey the damage at the Hidden Valley Satellite in October 2017. Photo courtesy of Diann Kitamura.

“Crisis leadership during a wildfire is my dissertation, but in the real world of what I do as a superintendent, I have to negotiate and strategize around what happens in the district. It’s not something you’re taught. It’s through your experiences with other educators, other leaders – that’s the value of an Ed.D. program,” she said. “I’m not sure I could be talking to you today if I was not in the program. Why am I getting a doctorate at this point in my life? Why not? I am never going to stop learning and giving. What I can gain from the program is going to help others.”

 “Just like Brandman, I am here to serve youth, people, the public. My overall vision is to create a better world. Everyone one in (the Ed.D.) program has that passion. It is about creating a world together that will thrive and be better. Even amidst all the negativity around us in the world, there is a program that supports that.”

Read more about Kitamura and the school district’s response to the fires here.

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