Tuesday, March 22, 2005 | When San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Alan Bersin calls, Katherine Nakamura’s cell phone plays The Beatles’ song “Revolution” – with the opening lines “You say you want a revolution/Well, you know/We all want to change the world.”
Nakamura, elected to the school board in 2002, says she too wants a revolution, but not a French revolution where heads roll and government changes frequently. “I want an American revolution, where the changes are deep and substantive and last for many years to come,” she wrote in a letter to fellow school board members last December.
Articulate and passionate about education, Nakamura looks to the future warily and has deep reservations about this new school board, with three of its members just elected in November. “I don’t know these people yet,” she said. “I don’t know who they are.”
Strong Bersin ally
Saying he had to go because her fellow trustees “could not get past Bersin,” Nakamura said, “He was a divisive factor, but he himself was not divisive.”
“I cried,” she said, when asked how she felt about the buyout. “I’ll miss him.”
She has also been a strong supporter of the charter movement, and took a leading role in winning board approval of the charter applications for Gompers and Keiller middle schools, two controversial and highly publicized actions taken by trustees on March 1.
Nakamura was also the lone vote against removing popular Gompers principal Vince Riveroll from his position at the school, a 4-to-1 decision that dismayed and angered many students, parents, teachers and community members.
Finding common ground and setting priorities as a board.
Selecting the next superintendent (“this will speak volumes about the direction of the district,” she said).
Improving teacher morale and community relations.
Nakamura believes her mission is to oversee children’s education, and the role of the school board is to develop policy. “It’s the superintendent who implements that policy,” she said. “But he cannot implement if he doesn’t know what they are.”
To this end, Nakamura has called for several board retreats to find common ground. “We need to decide what is our plan, our priorities,” she said. “It’s been piecemeal so far.”
Nakamura is pleased that the district “has moved student achievement forward and made a difference for countless children.” She also praised the district’s efforts to bring technology into the 21st century, but she added that improvement in both achievement and technology need a continued focus.
Nakamura also applauded the progress the district has made in building and modernizing facilities under Proposition MM, the voter-approved bond measure that passed in 1998 and provided the district with $1.51 billion. However, many schools are still a blight on the community and a public health hazard, she said.
A union baby
However, “unions are not the advocates for education – they are the advocates for employees,” she said. “Their role doesn’t extend to teaching philosophies, although they would disagree.”
She said it’s not “employees first” for her. “There are children at risk,” she said. “This is not about making adults comfortable. My responsibility is to the children.”
A former teacher herself, Nakamura traces her heritage back to the Mayflower. She was born in Bakersfield and raised in Palos Verdes by her single mother, a 25-year teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District who worked hard “to give her daughter good educational opportunities.”
After high school, Nakamura attended San Diego State University and achieved her bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and English literature. She then received a law degree from the University of San Diego where she has worked in administration for the past 20 years.
Nakamura, 46, has lived in College Area for 25 years and is married to Kotaro Nakamura, president of Roesling Nakamura Architects. They have two sons, ages 11 and 15, who attend San Diego City Schools.
Nakamura represents Sub-District B, an area in the northeast portion of the district that includes Scripps Ranch and extends south to College Area and along Adams Avenue and Normal Heights. High schools in Sub-District B include Scripps Ranch, Patrick Henry and Hoover.
She said students in her district are very diverse and range from the economically disadvantaged to the more affluent. There is a large military presence and many very successful students who she said attend such universities as MIT, Harvard and Yale.
This is the first elected position Nakamura has held. Ironically, she ran and won in 2002 against Jeff Lee, husband of fellow trustee Mitz Lee, despite union money backing her opponent, she said.
During her campaign, Nakamura was frequently called a rubber stamp. “They give you a moniker that irritates you,” she said. “But I believe all of us have a rubber stamp, whether we know it or not. And mine says, ‘Education and children first.’ And it’s in that order, because children are not there to have a good time.”
Although it’s wonderful if kids enjoy school, Nakamura said that’s not the primary mission of public education. If that were true, they’d all be there playing Nintendo, she said.