LCUSD Board President Talks Bond, Student Wellness

Kaitzer Puglia

La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board’s new president knows education.
A professor of child development and education at Pasadena City College, Kaitzer Puglia has a uniquely thorough understanding of the field. She’s studied it, she’s stood at the front of the class, she’s opened private schools, she’s helped guide her daughters’ academic careers and, yes, she’s served on the school board of one of California’s top-ranked districts for the past four years.
In November, she was elected to a second term on the Governing Board, buoyed by many in the La Cañada Flintridge community who supported her and her campaign as she mourned the loss of her mother, Arpine Hovasapian, just after filing paperwork to run for re-election.
Sipping coffee recently from her favorite yellow cup at Penelope’s Cafe, Puglia discussed what she learned during her latest campaign, and how it might help her lead the board for the next year as the district prepares to make use of the $149 million bond that voters overwhelmingly approved this past fall.
Highlights of the conversation are below:

Is the bond the big story going into 2018?
The bond is the big story in the sense that we want to make sure that we are very fiscally responsible with the money that the community has entrusted us with. So, yes, it is a big story — but it cannot trump what’s going on in the classroom and with curriculum. It’s there to supplement what’s already happening.

The district seems really to be looking out for the whole student, embracing the Challenge Success program, that seems to be a new approach in education, right?
People and parents have been talking about how to find balance in their children’s lives and their own lives for a long, long time, and we’re still kind of finding our way, but the question is how do you maintain academic rigor and yet meet the needs of our students who are really stressed out? Not necessarily the ones in La Cañada Flintridge, but in general.
This is anecdotal, but I hear from my daughters that a lot of their student peers in different colleges are taking medications for anxiety. They’re so young, and there have to be some coping skills. So Challenge Success is going to look at the whole child, but it’s also going to look at the family and maybe share some information with the family to help mitigate some of the anxiety that tends to build up.
So yeah, absolutely, we’ll continue down that path, we’ll continue to look at the research and see how valid, how accurate and how supportive it can be, but we also have to look and see: How realistic is it for our families and our students?

I imagine it’s hard to tell many of these kids to prioritize in a different way, or to not push so hard.
Or that sleep is really kind of important! If students as well as families understood what goes on in the brain when they’re tired and stressed and anxious … and how that actually mitigates learning.

So the late, 8:30 a.m. start, so far, successful?
The majority of the families are comfortable with it, that’s at least what the surveys are telling us — and what I hear in the community is the same thing. [We’re going to] see how the feedback is over the course of the year. There are some families who are still concerned about the release time in the afternoon for the student athletes — and it is tricky. I know some have asked about starting the games later, but then we have to look at the Rio Hondo League. And there are still some who prefer the earlier start time, so we’ll still dialogue and get feedback.

What are the immediate steps for the bond, as far as getting people in the community involved?
There are timelines, we have to meet dates, we have to submit paperwork, we do need to form [an oversight] committee and then we look at what some of the first projects will be, what we can do feasibly.

What else are you looking forward to?
We’ve discussed continuing our liaison responsibilities throughout the academic year. As opposed to shifting where everyone goes as a board member in January, we’ll just continue until the end of the year. I’ll continue to go to the Educational Foundation, the PTA Council, and several other things, because it’s important to build the continuity and then make changes during the end of the academic year.

What can you tell me about this past election — congratulations, by the way — but it’s always a lot of work, isn’t it?
It was difficult and a blessing at the same time. I lost my mom on Aug. 25, so my attention was diluted. It was a difficult time to manage; it kept me focused because it kept my mind on the election, but on the other hand, I wasn’t 100%. I’m not sure if I would use this election as a standard. I got my signs out a week late, but I still got my signs out. I decided not to do a mailer.
We had just dropped off the girls [at college], and they needed a lot more attention this semester because they had just lost their grandmother whom they were very, very close to. … We literally sometimes would talk three or four times a day. We check in with each other daily anyway, just a text, “good morning,” or “good night,” but this was dialogue, because they needed to get through it.
And I maintained everything I had going on; the election, a full-time job, my family. It was a tough one. Tough in the sense that there was so much going on, but the lesson was that, in life, these things happen. Unfortunately the timing wasn’t the best, but it’s part of life and I managed, and so it made me highlight the fact that I manage really well under duress.
And the community was amazingly supportive. I had neighbors who were cheering me on, members of the community asked if they could do some precinct walking for me because they knew I had so much family in town that I was managing. And, aside from that, someone would drop off a lasagna or community members came up to my parents’ house during the [traditional Armenian grieving] process.

Did you always think you’d run for a seat on the school board?
I’ve always paid attention, quietly. I knew there had to be a balance, and when my children were younger, it was important that I was involved with them, and I had a full-time job, so the rest of the time was other activities. I was PTA president for a year. I was a member of the La Cañada Junior Women’s Club. I’ve been a member of the Thursday Club for more than 15 years.
But when the time period came up in 2013, I knew in April of that year that I was going to throw my hat in the ring. I didn’t say anything until July when I talked to my girls. They were a freshman and sophomore at the time, and I said, “This is the path, and you can’t really talk to anybody, you can’t respond if someone says something,” and they were good. So I didn’t know I’d be on the Governing Board, but I was definitely always interested.

The year was sort of book-ended by news of lawsuits. [Former LCE Principal Christine Castillo sued alleging gender discrimination and the family of LCHS student Ethan Kalnins sued alleging negligence, resulting in a fall from the bleachers that left him injured.] I don’t know what you can say about those, but how do you guys as a board maintain focus on everything you have to focus on and also deal with issues like that?
It’s a part of life, unfortunately. First and foremost, safety is extremely important for our students, so that’s a reality. This is definitely something we’ve been dealing with for a while.
I can’t give details, but the thing of it is to maintain that focus: What’s best for the district, what’s best for our students and what’s best for learning. As long as we can keep that core perspective, we can move forward from there — and unfortunately, we deal with difficult situations. But, again, we have to think, OK, safety is important, our students are extremely important, our staff is important.
Unfortunately, things happen. It would be great if things could work out wonderfully all the time, but I don’t know if that’s reality. But it does give us an opportunity to look at ourselves as a district and make sure that we are up to par, up to speed, to always be looking at ourselves and making sure we maintain a focus on learning.

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