Being the "first" can be a daunting task on one's shoulders.
Katie Russell, the instructional superintendent at the Fresno Unified School District, has filled those shoes before. It's an honor to be the first to serve in a role, she says, but what's more important is realizing what it means for others.
Her recent appointment as the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District superintendent makes her the first female and African American to fill that role, which she hopes will inspire students she will soon serve.
"My hope is they can start seeing the same thing and believe 'Yes, I can do it,'" Russell said. "We have to remember that our kids and families see themselves represented in our community and schools. I look for every opportunity for us to do that."
Russell's first day on the job will be Aug. 4. She succeeds Kevin Silberberg, who is retiring.
Board President Greg White said, “We look forward to her efforts in building trust and collaboration with staff and families to lead us forward as we adapt our District to 21st century educational practices and continuing the district’s mission of ‘Excellence in Education.'"
Board Vice President Cherie Olgin added she was "pleased to be part of this history being made" following Russell's appointment.
Over the course of her 30-year career, Russell has focused on impacting Central Valley students.
She graduated from Fresno State in 1989 with a degree in liberal studies, and in 2000 completed her master’s degree in educational administration. She began her career as an educational administrator after 10 years of teaching, including assignments as a vice principal, elementary principal and middle school principal at various sites in the Fresno Unified School District.
"The core of what I do has never changed. I do what I do to impact students," she explained. "From teaching in a classroom, my focus was to improve student achievement and provide what they need to be successful adults."
In her current role as instructional superintendent, which she has held since 2015, she has focused on bringing different educational departments together to understand what good instruction looks like and how it can better student learning. It was important for leaders in the district to "(understand) what we were asking our teachers to do so they could better support them," she said.
As she prepares to transition to superintendent, she believes there's plenty of similarities between Fresno Unified and Panama-Buena Vista Union students when it comes to areas of improvement. The main one is supporting math instruction.
A decline in math achievement typically comes when students enter fourth grade and are tasked with problem solving. Russell said it's necessary to set strong foundational skills in grades kindergarten through third in order for students' math scores to remain high in intermediate grade levels.
She also wants to support students' social-emotional learning and focus on lowering suspension rates.
Of course, how the 2020-2021 school year will play out with the coronavirus and major funding cuts is another concern. Russell said she has been working with Silberberg and preparing for multiple scenarios.
"It is important that we keep the students at the center of all our decisions as we enter into one of the greatest budget shortfalls we have ever seen," Russell explained. "Our staff will utilize a balanced and phased in approach to budget reductions so we can maintain our focus, preserve stability to sites and prioritize teaching, learning and a safe learning environment for all kids."
"As the new superintendent it is my goal to ensure our educational system provides a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for every child and I look forward to our future, and working side by side with all stakeholders on behalf of all the students and families of the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District," she added.