Some community members were unnerved by the San Diego Unified school board’s sudden and unilateral pick of Cindy Marten as superintendent — including, apparently, Marten herself, she revealed at Tuesday night’s One Voice at a Time event.

“Because the community was skipped, and it was done overnight, I’m not skipping the community now, which is why I said yes to something like this,” Marten said.

More than 180 people attended the Voice of San Diego event with the superintendent-designate.

We broke the news of Marten’s appointment in February, and we’ve written extensively about her plans for the district, her ho-hum record of test scores at the school where she previously served as principal (including this fact check), and the challenges she faces as a new leader.

Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis and Marten sat down before the crowd at the Ken Cinema in Kensington and held a spirited 90-minute conversation.

Here are some of the takeaways, and some of the zingers, from their chat.

Arne Duncan on the Line

Just as the talk got under way, Lewis chided Marten for checking her iPhone:

“You just got a text. Is that another job offer?” Lewis said.

“I don’t know. Let me check,” Marten responded. After a beat, she added “It’s Arne Duncan.”

A bit of an in-joke, maybe. But it underscored a deeper point.

A call from Duncan, the Secretary of Education, perhaps wouldn’t be unprecedented after the year Marten has had. She was plucked from her position as an elementary school principal to lead the second-largest school district in California. A jump to the federal stage wouldn’t be much bigger in scope than the leap she just made.

A Private-School Background

I’ve known Marten for some time, but I learned some new things about her last night. Among them: She both attended, and taught at, private schools.

As a teenager, Marten spent three years at La Jolla Country Day School. And in the early stage of her career, she spent seven years teaching at Beth Israel Day School in University City.

Considering how much of a champion of public education Marten has become, the fact that she taught for almost a decade at a private school is surprising.

Marten said last night that the experience at Beth Israel, as well as her time at the Poway Unified School District, only strengthened her resolve to bring equity to the public school system.

I wanted to take everything that I learned, and all these experiences that I had. Poway Unified was an experience where a great ZIP code gets you a great education.

We know that Poway Unified has a great reputation. People buy homes up there because it’s an award-winning district, but you have to afford to live there.

I just really deeply believe in the hope and promise of public education in America.

It’s not about having to write a check, or stand in line, or win a lottery or get a great ZIP code. Public education is for all of us, not some.

‘Happy, Literate, Contributing’

About midway through the conversation, things took a somewhat unusual turn.

Lewis, who was interviewing Marten on stage, found the tables quickly turned, as Marten quizzed him about what he wants for his young children.

Somewhat taken aback, Lewis said he wanted his infant daughter to be, above all, healthy and happy. As Marten pressed him, Lewis fleshed that out:

“I want her to go to a good school,” Lewis said.

“Ok, and what’s a good school to you?” Marten asked.

“I want her to be a happy, literate, contributing … “

Lewis’s response was drowned out by laughter. That’s because he was parroting one of Marten’s own stock phrases.

In interviews, Marten seldom goes more than a few minutes before returning to her theme of turning all students into “actively literate, contributing, participating members of society.”

That’s trademark Marten. She has spent her career defining the goals she wants from education and attaching labels or stock phrases to them as she communicates what they are. Some others: “support-based learning” and reframing test scores as a “byproduct” of good education.

Coming from another source, these stock phrases might seem trite. But the point, really, of Lewis’ joke is that Marten speaks them without an ounce of cynicism, so that they become compelling messages that educators, policymakers and parents can rally around.

Not ‘Turning Around’ Schools

One central theme of last night’s conversation was Marten’s challenge of replicating the impact she had as the principal of Central Elementary school in City Heights across the district.

Marten said she dislikes the term “turning around” a school, and doesn’t think it fits what she accomplished at Central. She sees the term as degrading to the staff, who worked hard at a school before its “turnaround.”

But Marten also acknowledges that many schools in the district have a long way to go before they are churning out those active, literate, contributing, participating members of society.

So, Lewis pressed Marten repeatedly on how she, as the district’s top official, will be able to keep track of schools’ progress.

He never really got an answer.

Marten mentioned the district’s effort to define the characteristics of a successful neighborhood school using 12 indicators. And she spoke somewhat vaguely about the ethos of collaboration and parent involvement that she oversaw at Central.

But she never nailed down how she plans to look for, and measure, the growth of that ethos on the scores of other campuses that will soon be under her purview. Lewis pinpointed that.

“I can’t just rely on a feeling. I can’t just say ‘Hey, I’m OK with him [Lewis’s son] going to this school because there are a few teachers there who have a good feeling.”

Therein lies one of Marten’s key challenges: In order to meet her stated goals of equity and quality, she needs to come up with a plan not just to build the sort of ethos that she’s so proud of at Central in every school, but also to measure that development to show parents that her plan is working.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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