Students of Vallecitos Elementary School having lunch with Superintendent Maritza Koeppen. / Photo courtesy of Maritza Koeppen

Drive north up the 15, past the reservations and strange old tourmaline mines, until you’re just a few miles outside Riverside County. Exit onto Old Highway 395, go another country mile or so and you’ll find yourself at Vallecitos Elementary School District.

Squeezed out to the rural edge of San Diego County, Vallecitos operates just one school, which serves pre-school through eighth grade. The superintendent is also the principal, and she’s the only credentialed administrator on staff. Maritza Koeppen is one of only three Latina superintendents in the county, by her count.

She’s even more of a rarity because she works in one of just two districts in the county where the percentage of administrators of color is higher than the percentage of students of color. Vallecitos Elementary serves 88 percent students of color, the vast majority of whom are Latino. Because Koeppen is the only administrator, the school has 100 percent administrators of color.

(The only other school district with a similar ratio also operates just one school with one administrator. Julian Union High School’s principal is black, according to state Department of Education data.)

On the whole, only 31 percent of administrators in San Diego County are people of color, while the student body is far more diverse: 69 percent of students are non-white.

Principals and administrators set the tone for districts and schools and, perhaps more importantly, they set the policies that can have a major impact in students’ lives. Schools are a petri dish for the problems of America. Racial disparities in achievement, immigration, policing and discipline permeate public education. Administrators of color are best positioned to put in place policies that help alleviate, rather than exacerbate, these flaws.

“We as administrators are the ones making important decisions about our school,” Koeppen told me. “I don’t want to be conceited, but I think being Latina is helpful here, where we serve lots of immigrant families.”

Koeppen reeled off several changes she’d made at the school to make it work better for immigrant families. Many families at her school have mixed immigration status, she told me, so she hired the school’s first ever social worker. She insisted the person not only be bilingual, but also “bi-cultural,” she said. It took her nine months to find a candidate who met both criteria, but in the end she did.

When she hired new front office staff, she actually tested their written and spoken language abilities in Spanish.

“We were wondering why more people are coming to the office now and we kind of gathered it’s that the office staff is bilingual,” she said.

Koeppen, who started at Vallecitos during the 2016-17 school year, has also mandated four sessions of training for all teachers on how to better work with students whose first language isn’t English. She put more focus on family outreach too, she said, in order to give families a stronger voice in how the school is run.

Most school districts in the county are not in the position of Vallecitos. A handful of districts, however, did rate relatively high in the proportion of administrators of color compared to the proportion of students of color. To create the list of 10 most diverse districts, I only looked at school districts with more than five administrators.

[infogram id=”606d99e8-a3a5-4874-bf95-1fe8e9580f03″ prefix=”5Vj” format=”interactive” title=”Admin Most Diverse”]
You may remember, I ranked teacher diversity across the region using the same methodology several weeks ago. Here’s how I explained it then:

“First, I looked at the percentage of students of color who live within a school district. Then I compared that to the percentage of [administrators] of color who work within a district. (Both numbers come from the state Department of Education.) Then I gave each a simple diversity score. …

If a district had 60 percent students of color and also 60 percent teachers of color, it would score a 10. If it had 60 percent students of color and 40 percent teachers of color, it would score a 6.7. If it had 60 percent students of color and 0 percent teachers of color, it would score a 0.  Hopefully, you get the idea.”

You can see how all 40-plus school districts in the county ranked in this spreadsheet. San Diego Unified School District, the largest in the county, scored slightly above average.

Three school districts scored a 0 this time, because they had no administrators of color. Grossmont Union High School District, one of the bigger school districts in the county, also scored very low. In August, we revealed that Grossmont has expelled black students at a rate six times higher than other local districts expel black students for the last three years.

[infogram id=”296a30d7-cd8c-4454-a213-9b88324f1fc5″ prefix=”EEI” format=”interactive” title=”Admin Least Diverse”]

While Koeppen has instituted several concrete changes to help Latino students in her school, soft skills also often come into play, she said.

Recently, she was in a meeting with several other teachers about the progress of one student, who hadn’t been performing well for quite some time. The first question she asked was how things were going with the girl’s family at home. No one knew the answer.

When the girl’s mom came in, she told Koeppen and the teachers that the family was about to be deported.

“That was on a Thursday. By Tuesday they had to leave,” said Koeppen. The girl and her family were sent back to Guatemala. “I was in tears, and it was a very emotional experience. But it’s just a reality for many of our families.”

Koeppen’s great grandparents were migrant workers. She carries her own experience as well as those she has had with her students into the decisions she makes for the school every day.

“Students with mixed immigration status often feel isolated, alone or sad and that can impede learning,” she said. “My main thing is I love motivating my students. I love giving them hope and trying to send a positive message and be a good role model to them, so they can look up and see that anything is possible.”

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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