Susan Epstein – Education Leadership

Susan has studied how people learn, from the earliest years through adulthood, and applied that expertise throughout her career. She has also explored best practices for developing intelligent computer systems like machine learning models. Susan is especially interested in thoughtful educational technology. For sixteen years, she served as an elected school board member of a public school district that has received multiple awards for its academic achievement.

During her service as a board member, the district:

  • increased test scores dramatically for all demographic subgroups
  • reduced class sizes
  • greatly reduced the achievement gap
  • tripled the number of preschool classrooms
  • celebrated that eight of our schools were honored as California Distinguished Schools and two were recognized by the federal government
  • expanded music, art, fitness, hands-on science, summer programs, and after-school programs, and enacted systems to ensure fiscal stability
  • increased network bandwidth in classrooms, provided laptops and smart TVs to all teachers for instruction, and Chromebooks to all students in grades 3-6 for enhanced learning
  • provided extensive professional development to all employees, including research-based socio-emotional curriculum across the schools, and developed strong multi-tiered systems of support
  • offered training to our teachers in professional learning communities and continuously work to improve our training as well as their instruction for the benefit of our students
  • enhanced our safety and security systems
  • ensured a well-trained school psychologist per school site, hired a licensed clinical social worker for the district, and expanded our team of bilingual community liaisons
  • incorporated green practices into building and facility maintenance including eliminating pesticides in 120 acres of playing fields, and created an educational garden at each school site
  • returned $1.5 million to residential and corporate taxpayers through refinancing our 1996 bond 
  • raised $80 million through a 2020 bond to upgrade STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) classrooms, increase internet access, repair and replace roofs, ventilation, and plumbing, and install renewable energy and other sustainability features 
  • maintained a strategic focus on differentiating instruction for all students, including GATE-identified students, English learners, and special needs students

Susan’s educational leadership is informed by the following philosophy, research, and experience:

Each child in each school or program in each community needs to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Research, practice, and common sense confirm that a whole child approach to education will develop and prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow by addressing students’ comprehensive needs through the shared responsibility of students, families, schools, and communities.

To succeed academically, socially, and professionally, each student needs access to individualized learning and to be supported by qualified, caring adults. All adults at schools need appropriate resources and ongoing, quality professional development.

Boy enjoying his fruit kabab at school

Each student must be challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment. This includes students identified for gifted education programs, high achievers, English learners, and special-needs students.

Engaging youth in their own learning includes challenging them at the appropriate level and also exposing them to arts, music, hands-on science and other project-based learning, physical education, and technology. Many adults can remember the class, teacher, or subject that motivated them to work hard. For each person, it may be a different topic or experience. The curriculum must be varied to motivate and effectively maintain learners’ interest.

Research shows that investing in the early years (especially ages 0-5) has the biggest impact on a person’s life. Similarly, schools and districts interested in eliminating achievement gaps among demographic subgroups have the greatest results with investments in the early grades. Quality early childhood programs focus on developmental needs of young children including social and cognitive growth as well as physical skills and health. NAYEC standards provide great guidance for quality early childhood programs. Students and the adults who care for them must learn about and practice healthy lifestyles to be successful.

Susan samples the food at a Food Services training

GUSD Board members and staff sample food prepared in the Goleta School District kitchen as part of a new healthy lunches and breakfasts program.

School environments and extracurricular environments must be physically and emotionally safe for students and adults. School safety includes consistent implementation of safety procedures at the school sites by all adults. Equally important is a focus on students’ mental wellness by teaching conflict resolution and other social skills and by investing in psychologists on staff. Each child should have at least one adult they trust and can confide in.

In addition to quality schools, each child must have access to a public library. Frequent access to books is essential to developing basic reading skills, leads to longer and more frequent shared reading between parents and children, and produces increased enjoyment of books and improved attitude towards reading and academics. Research shows that early reading experiences, opportunities to build vocabulary, and literacy-rich environments are the most effective ways to support the development of pre-reading and cognitive skills that ensure that children are prepared for success in school and throughout life.

Each child must also have access to public parks and open spaces. Research shows that when children spend time in nature, they are more likely to be physically healthy, better students, and more emotionally upbeat. When children develop a deep connection to nature it often results in a commitment to and sense of stewardship for the future health of our planet.

Thoughtful use of technology can enhance instruction and learning. Technology can increase options for individualized learning. Technology can assist students in communicating with other students around the world in ways previously unimagined. With thoughtful planning and research, technology can allow quicker and more comprehensive feedback to teachers on all their students and to students on their individual learning goals.

However, simply distributing tech devices is not a solution and can be an expensive mistake. Young children must learn science, reading, writing, math, and art with their own hands in real materials prior to working with more abstract digital replicas of those materials. In addition, not all devices and apps are appropriate at all ages. Research has shown that too much screen time in a child’s day is detrimental. Blended learning can be beneficial; over-reliance on technology by educators is not.

Evaluating programs with both formative and summative assessments allows for data-based student learning, continuous improvement, and effectiveness. Again, it’s important to not test students too often so that it interferes with instructional time.

Collaboration, coordination, and integration help to ensure any initiative’s long-term success. Students are more likely to succeed when schools have parent education and involvement programs. Partnerships with both local nonprofit organizations and local businesses are also correlated with student and school success. Extracurricular programs are more likely to be adopted at a school or by a district when they align with existing curricular goals or strategic goals.