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San Diego voters will put two new members on the five-person San Diego Unified Board of Education in November. Click here to read about the candidates in the race.
Godwin Higa’s outreach strategy for the primary election for the sub-district B seat on the San Diego Unified School District board – which represents the north east portion of the district – didn’t rely on mailers or consultants, but rather on some big signs. For two months, Higa stood on the side of busy streets in the district’s bounds clad in his blue Godwin4kids.com polo shirt and matching hat with a couple of signs emblazoned with “Godwin Higa For School Board” waving to commuters.
After advancing to the general election, he made a new sign – this time a large neon green one – thanking voters.
“I’m getting more horn toots, and waves and smiles and thumbs ups,” Higa said. His next strategy is a grassroots door-knocking campaign.
“Now when I go to their home they’ll say ‘you’re the crazy guy with a blue shirt and the lei,’” Higa said.
His barebones campaign was enough to get him to second place in June’s primary, but as he moves to November’s general election, he’s badly outmatched in funding and institutional support. He also doesn’t have the polish or political savvy of the other candidates for SDUSD board – the bio on his simple website is peppered with exclamation points and dozens of local officials and institutions have endorsed his opponent, Shana Hazan.
Higa hopes that his experience as an educator, his trailblazing implementation of trauma-informed schools strategies and his passion for students and education will help him carry the day. But in a district where the support of teachers unions – something else he doesn’t have – has been a key barometer of success, he has a steep hill to climb.
Higa was born in Hawaii to a Japanese family and his young life was marred by domestic violence and an absent father. When Higa was two, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles.
His mother worked a variety of jobs, sometimes three at a time. After a couple of hard years, they moved back to Hawaii where they lived in a two-bedroom house in Kaneohe on his grandfather’s hog and banana farm. When he was 15, Higa’s mother passed away from a heart attack and he and his siblings relied on community members and family to make it. Those early experiences shaped Higa’s life and would go on to play a significant role in his commitment to trauma-informed schools and restorative justice.
“I can relate to the kids that are going through the pain,” Higa said. “And growing up I never knew anything about trauma.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Hawaii, Higa began teaching at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. He spent the next decade teaching at elementary schools in San Diego, earning an SDUSD teacher of the year award in 1997, before becoming the vice principal of Boone Elementary school. He became a principal and in 2008 took the helm of Cherokee Point Elementary in City Heights.
By that time Higa had already leaned into practices like “teaching to the whole child,” which refers to embracing students’ social, emotional and physical needs as well as their educational ones. But at Cherokee Point, Higa implemented changes that turned him into a trauma-informed school and restorative justice evangelizer. Trauma-informed schools acknowledge the potential trauma students may have experienced and implement strategies that are sensitive to the effect that trauma may have on their ability to learn and reduce the trauma they are exposed to.
When Higa started as principal of Cherokee Point, which is home to a high number of immigrant families, students who come from poverty and homes affected by abuse, he went on a walk.
“I visited about 85 to 90 students and sat in their homes to try to understand the community, understand the parents and they were really fearful at first because a lot of the parents were undocumented,” Higa said. But after reassurances from trusted school staff, the parents began to trust him too.
Over the years he created partnerships with other local organizations, like the San Diego Food Bank, which delivered fresh fruit and vegetables to students and applied to join the national Breakfast in the Classroom program, which enabled the school to give all students free breakfast. These strategies are sometimes referred to as building community schools, which embrace the factors outside the classroom that affect students’ ability to learn, and Higa is in favor of wider integration of them in SDUSD. Higa also implemented restorative justice strategies at Cherokee Point – a practice that eschews traditional suspensions and expulsions when a student misbehaves in favor of repairing the harm done and reducing the likelihood of similar behavior.
“Teachers and principals and adults on campus that don’t understand that will take children acting out as insubordination and suspend them, get rid of them,” he said. “When we suspend kids, we don’t do anything about helping them with trauma or mental illness that they might have, and then we bring them back and they redo the same infraction.”
To more uniformly implement these practices, Higa educated parents about this more compassionate method and arranged free counseling services. In his last four years at Cherokee Point, he didn’t suspend a single student. Research does support Higa’s belief that suspensions are ineffective, and that restorative justice practice may be a better way to deal with students who misbehave. Though other studies have shown restorative justice had little difference on student behavior and may contribute to worsening of academic performance.
In 2014, Jane Stevens, a journalist and advocate for trauma-informed schools, visited Cherokee Point and gave Higa even more insight into how to effectively implement changes in his school. Higa said that after observing the school for a couple of days, Stevens pulled him aside and said, “’Mr. Higa, did you know you have a trauma-informed school?’”
Stevens explained the concept of trauma-informed schools to Higa, and their connection to ACE’s, or adverse childhood experiences. A study performed in San Diego and released in 1998 found that a broad cross-section of society experienced these potentially traumatic events and those experiences can affect the development of children and impact their ability to learn, and the likelihood that they’ll engage in high-risk or harmful activities.
Higa began to hold seminars for parents of students.
“The goal here was not to just fix the school environment,” Higa said. “But then break the cycle from home to school so the parents will understand why not retraumatize their kids.”
Higa said Cherokee Point became the first trauma-informed school in San Diego, and despite SDUSD committing to create more trauma-informed practices districtwide, he thinks the implementation wasn’t consistent enough to make the impact he hoped for.
It’s not clear that it worked. Data show Cherokee Point students consistently received low marks in standardized English and Math tests. Though the school serves a high number of English learners and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, factors that often correlate to low test scores. But according to Voice of San Diego’s most recent “A Parent’s Guide To Schools”, a yearly project that gathers information about the performance of local schools, Cherokee Point’s test scores were slightly above what would be expected when controlled for poverty levels.
Overall, Higa believes that standardized tests are a flawed way to measure student success, though he largely supports Common Core standards, which he views as consisting of more critical thinking than previous iterations of state tests that he said featured more rote memorization.
He’s also supportive of moving away from traditional letter grading and toward a mastery grading rubric, or standards-based grading, which SDUSD has done. The new approach is meant to level the playing field for students who may come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and places less of an emphasis on timeliness and turning in assignments and more of an emphasis on how much students have actually mastered the content. Its implementation has elicited some pushback.
Not as much pushback, though, as the district’s approach to COVID-19. As students begin to return to school in person, Higa believes a trauma-informed approach is more important than ever.
“The big thing about COVID was the social isolation of children,” Higa said. He thinks teachers shouldn’t “even think about academics until we get kids back into the school and in an environment that’s positive so they feel safe,” he said. “Because they don’t feel safe right now.” He believes a crisis prevention and response team should be activated to address the significant amount of trauma some children may have experienced over the pandemic. Higa himself lost family members to COVID-19 and said he knows the toll losses like that can take on someone’s mental health.
But another byproduct of the time spent away from schools is the learning loss experienced by students and Higa thinks new assessment tools should be developed to determine just how far behind students are and how best to catch them up.
Ultimately, Higa views the pandemic-era school closures as essential given the danger posed by COVID-19 but acknowledged the difficulty virtual learning posed to students with special needs and physical disabilities.
“People sometimes criticized the district and how they handled COVID, and I thought to myself, ‘What else were they supposed to do but to try these different strategies like getting every kid a computer?’” Higa said.
Higa supported the mask and vaccine mandates the district implemented, saying the risks posed by COVID-19 to students and teachers were simply too high.
“We must follow the science and medical experts and create policies that would protect the health and safety of all students and adults,” he said.
Higa is a significant underdog in the race for the District B board seat. Despite coming in second in June’s primary, he received less than half of the votes received by his general election opponent, Shana Hazan. He’s also raised less than 5 percent of the funds Hazan has raised – around $5,000 compared to her around $103,000. Hazan has also been endorsed by nearly every city council member and local member of congress as well as multiple county supervisors and members of regional school boards. And perhaps most importantly, Hazan has earned the endorsement of the local teachers union, whose funding and support often make or break candidates in board races.
But Higa says he’s unconcerned with endorsements. He views earning them as requiring him to play a political game he’s not interested in playing. In the San Diego Union-Tribune’s endorsement of Hazan, they described her as being the candidate most likely to be able to convince other school board members of her beliefs, and there may be truth to that. Higa is not a polished speaker. His talking points can come out muddled as he careens from one point to the next, always returning to his North Star of reimagining the way we discipline students and implementing trauma-informed tactics in schools.
“Some people might say, ‘Godwin, you’re very naive, you’re not going to win,’” he said. “But win or lose, I think I’m getting the message out that we have to change the way we do business in education.”