Conductor of Dreams
Superintendent Francisco Escobedo is changing the lives of students through community, collaboration, and the arts
When Francisco Escobedo first stepped into his superintendency at Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD), the CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony (SDYS) confronted him about the district’s representation in the organization. Of all of the musicians in the youth symphony, only 3% of students were from Chula Vista. Meanwhile, more affluent districts were seeing participation rates of almost 27%.
At the time, Chula Vista had gone without in-school music programs for over a decade. When violins are pitted against calculators, most administrators are forced to choose programming that will improve the district’s test scores. But to Escobedo, students miss a critical piece of their education—and their lives—when the arts are neglected. “A life void of the arts is not much of a life,” he tells SchoolCEO. “I think it’s my duty as a superintendent to ensure that the arts are not only alive, but thriving in my district.”
He committed to making a change. In 2010, Chula Vista partnered with SDYS to create the Community Opus Project. At Otay Elementary and Lauderbach Elementary, 65 third graders were greeted on campus with new instruments. The next year, the program expanded to include more schools and more students.
Eight years later in 2018, SDYS’s CEO showed Escobedo the symphony’s new demographics. Chula Vista’s representation had jumped from 3% to 33%. After
almost three decades in education, Escobedo notes this memory as one of the
sweetest in his career.
Escobedo is a gentle man, rolling through his words with quiet confidence. His parents, both immigrants, met in New York City; his father was raised in Mexico, his mother in Puerto Rico. “The East Coast was tough,” he told The Star News, describing his neighborhood just outside of Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. His parents taught Escobedo to value education as a changemaker. As a student, Escobedo cherished his teachers, even describing them as “surrogate parents.”
He went on to graduate from Yale University, majoring in biology with an interest in forensics. From there, he moved to California to become a police officer. Once on the job, however, the future educator had a hard time stomaching the violence against children that he often witnessed. As an officer, he was known to counsel youth in the back of his squad car.
It wasn’t long before his partner on the force brought up Escobedo’s aptitude for teaching, leaving him shaken. “Those words really hit my heart hard,” Escobedo says. He took the next week off work, enrolling at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) to become a teacher.
From there, he followed a somewhat standard progression, from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent to superintendent. All the while, he took his passion to educate the whole child—or “the whole human,” as he says—with him. Chula Vista has kept him as their superintendent for nine years (around 120 in superintendent years, he jokes). “It’s been an amazing experience at my district,” he says. “Just a tremendous community.”
Chula Vista Elementary School District is the largest elementary district in California, serving a little over 30,000 students. More than half of students in the district qualify for free and reduced lunch, and about a third—30.6%—are English learners (ELs). The district has a high percentage of minority students, with high Latino or Hispanic (70%) and Filipino populations (9%). Because of the district’s proximity to San Diego’s naval base, it also welcomes a large number of military families.
Chula Vista Elementary School District 2017-2018 Data
When Escobedo talks about the diversity in his district, he smiles a little, proud. He describes the 20 languages spoken, the biculturalism and binationalism, the diversity of thinking and backgrounds, as he would talk about family. “It’s just a beautiful community,” he says. “Chula Vista is beautiful.”
Talking with Escobedo, it’s clear that his expectations for CVESD are sky-high. His belief in the power of education—of building up the whole human—is palpable, allowing him to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Take the issue of arts programming, for example, which is often tied to equity. “If you look at many of the more privileged schools, they more than likely offer some sort of arts program,” says Escobedo. “You definitely don’t see that in more needy areas.”
To Escobedo, the arts hit on the very core of learning. “In education, we have the false premise that it’s all about arithmetic or reading,” he tells us. “We forget the humanities. We focus so much on being human doers, but we don’t focus enough on being human beings. And I think when you bring in the arts, you really hit the spirit and the soul of the human.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that reading and math aren’t important. But Escobedo views learning how to play an instrument, how to paint, or how to sculpt as equally important.
This passion for arts education comes from Escobedo’s own life. “Everyday, I’m hearing music. I love to dance. It’s ingrained. It’s part of my life. It fulfills me as a human,” he says. “I think it’s really critical that we do the same with our children.”
When asked if arts programming is a tool to stay competitive, he pauses. “It can be,” he says. “But I see it more as a moral duty.”
It’s not just the arts that are thriving. Chula Vista was named a California Exemplary District in 2018. Three of its schools were also honored as California Distinguished Schools; more than a third made the Education Results Partnership’s Honor Roll in the 2017-2018 school year.
While Escobedo is quick to give credit to administrators, teachers, staff, and students, his leadership is paramount to the district’s success. Chula Vista’s superintendent is a master relationship builder—with his board, with parents, with his cabinet, with the community. His strength isn’t in simply connecting with others, but in building systems that encourage collaboration. After connecting teachers, leveraging business leaders, and engaging parents, Escobedo ultimately steps back to play conductor of his own symphony.
Almost as soon as Escobedo came to the district, he focused on shifting the culture to encourage collaboration. His goal was to create “interdependency.” Chula Vista split professional development days in half to allow teachers time to collaborate with others in their grade level. However, the administration soon realized that teachers needed more training in collaboration. There needed to be a change not only in process, but in culture. At the time, many teachers were focused on obstacles—parents weren’t involved, or the community wasn’t supportive. Now, teachers’ vernacular focuses on solutions. “The amount of ideas exchanged is remarkable,” Escobedo explained in a speech to the National Center for Educational Literacy. “It’s amazing. But it didn’t happen overnight.”
Building strong relationships amongst the board encourages high-level collaboration. “I try to create a real family environment with my board, and I think that’s really critical,” he says. Escobedo takes time to connect with each member individually. “Understand what their interests are—their aspirations, their needs,” he says. “Like you would do with family, right? Every person in the family is different.” While everyone has their unique passions and interests, “as a family, you have to work as one.”
Escobedo also makes sure his team stays well connected in the business community. “My relationship with the community, especially with the business community, is critical,” he tells us. While serving as superintendent, Escobedo has also served as the 2018 President of the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce, an adjunct professor at San Diego State University, and a chairperson at the local YMCA—just to name a few. “You have to make sure you interconnect yourself to the businesses around you,” he says.
Escobedo’s team of administrators are a community force as well. Beyond their roles at Chula Vista, administrators serve on nonprofit boards or volunteer in the community. With every connection administrators build, CVESD’s web of support grows stronger.
The district’s makerspaces show the value of community connections. One makerspace, for example, is a set of classrooms built into an estuary in Chula Vista’s bay, where fifth graders pull on rubber boots to learn more about oceanography. In another, students trek to the public library’s basement to learn coding and robotics. In creating makerspaces, the district partnered with the wireless telecommunications company QualComm, San Diego Gas and Electric, the nearby water authorities, and, of course, the local library. “We’re utilizing our business assets in order to reinvent our classrooms,” Escobedo says. Often, the relationships are symbiotic. Circulation at the local library has increased by 80% since installing a makerspace.
The best part about makerspaces, of course, is their impact on students. In learning how to program or build a robot, students find their strengths and discover new passions and interests. Chula Vista provides students with opportunities, even outside the classroom, to explore their potential.
This spirit of unity and collaboration also trickles down to students and families. To Escobedo, that means knowing each of his students and their complexities. “You can’t really stereotype a child with a label,” he says. Many EL students in the district are also part of Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), or they live in poverty, or they don’t. “If you really want to help a child, you have to know their complexities,” he says. “We really know the individual as an individual.”
Language programs aren’t just beneficial for EL students; they bring everyone together. “We have in our district the largest percentage of dual language immersion programs,” he says. The programs teach more than language alone. “When you bring kids from different ethnicities, from different language experiences, together to learn not only the language, but the culture connected to the language—it’s powerful stuff.” Instead of isolating one group, “you’re bringing everyone together.”
Despite having 46 schools and over 30,000 students, Escobedo visits each classroom twice a year to stay connected. When he visits, he focuses on the most at-risk students, listening to their teachers’ concerns.
“Every time I go to a school, I spend the first 30 minutes at the principal’s office and we look at our homeless kids, we look at our English learners, we look at our foster kids, and see how they’re progressing,” he says. “Very, very critical that we look at the whole child.”
Of course, engaging students means getting parents on campus. “It’s not just parent participation that I strive for, but parent engagement,” he says. Escobedo even created a parent cabinet. Taking the parent leaders of GATE, the PTA, and other Chula Vista programs, he formed a group that provides critical feedback from parents’ perspectives.
He’s also made a point to increase communication with parents districtwide. At the beginning of his superintendency, Chula Vista was losing students due to California’s statewide housing crisis. This changed the way they thought about communication. “We can’t think the kids will come to us,” he says. “We have to present ourselves in a great light.” The district partnered with a marketing firm to discover that 80% of Chula Vista’s residents regularly checked Facebook and tuned into Magic 92.5.
Without missing a beat, Escobedo joined radio hosts Jagger and Kristi on the air to play trivia games like “Minute to Win It.” The duo asked Chula Vista’s superintendent ten trivia questions such as “What does ‘SMH’ mean?” Escobedo was dumbfounded, shaking his head when he learned the text lingo—but he’s obviously a team player when it comes to building community connections.
And of course, one of the best ways to engage families in the magic of Chula Vista is through excellent programming, like the district’s music initiative. “When students perform, mother, father, sister, brother, and the abuelitos are in the audience,” reads a news article published by the district. “Families are on our campuses, and, for schools, that’s the opening act.”
In building up the district’s music program, Escobedo has created what marketing guru Seth Godin calls a “purple cow” for the district. The program is one of Chula Vista’s unique strengths, making it stand out on its own, without added marketing.
Since the Community OPUS program began in 2010, the arts have blossomed in the district. In 2013, CVESD committed to providing in-school music instruction to all students. The district now employs 92 visual and performing arts instructors, freeing up time for classroom teachers to collaborate with other grade level teachers.
It’s paying off, too. In 2018, the NAMM Foundation designated Chula Vista as one of the Best Communities for Music Education. Escobedo himself was the 2019 recipient of the VH1 Save the Music Foundation’s annual Administrator Award for Distinguished Support of Music Education.
The benefits of arts education stretch into every classroom, especially when it comes to students’ language acquisition. “We’ve found some strong effects on language skills,” UCSD cognitive scientist Terry Iversen, Ph.D, reported to Chula Vista’s communications team. Neuroscientists at the University of California, San Diego are specifically studying students at SDYS, including Chula Vista students.
When students develop their ear for music, they improve their ability to process pitch, timing, and timbre, reports NPR Education. These three elements are key in language acquisition. Now, you’ve probably heard of the word gap—the statistic that students in poverty hear about four million fewer words than their peers before the age of four. When students’ language acquisition is improved, it may help solve some of the setbacks created by the word gap.
Perhaps most exciting is hearing about the impact firsthand. “The first day I ever got to hold my violin was the best day of my life,” Luna, a third grader with braided pigtails, told the youth symphony’s media team. “I knew it would change everything, and I would see everything a different kind of way.”