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.
Shana Hazan, who’s running for the District B seat on the San Diego Unified school board, comes across as an ideal candidate. Her crisp talking points are delivered with polish.
“I’m running because I believe in the limitless potential of every single child,” Hazan said in an interview with Voice of San Diego (she used this line twice in her San Diego Union-Tribune Q&A.)
Her policy positions are extensive and carefully considered, and include developing more community schools, increasing transparency in SDUSD and implementing evidence-based investments to improve student experience and performance. Much of this is neatly displayed on her website.
Hazan understands the political nature of board seats, and the election process, as evidenced by the significant amount of money she’s raised for her campaign and the endorsements she’s racked up by the dozens — more than any school board candidate running for election this cycle. Her history of working in nonprofits, government relations, journalism and public relations has prepared her for the spotlight, even while saying she’s uncomfortable with it.
None of this is to say she doesn’t genuinely care about students or isn’t invested in education. She’s devoted much of her life to helping children. She also doesn’t shy away from criticizing the district’s operations. She’s gotten deeply involved in her daughter’s San Diego Unified school. In addition to her belief in the transformational potential of education, her path to get here is rooted in a series of “a-ha” moments throughout her life – from teaching in Chicago public schools for two years to her work on food insecurity in San Diego.
But what her presentation, history and ability to garner endorsements do say is that Hazan is clearly a candidate who wants to win. And it seems like she knows how to do it.
Hazan is a fourth-generation San Diego Unified student who graduated from Scripps Ranch High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Wisconsin. While working on her bachelor’s she interned for ABC News in New York and London, and then transitioned into public relations at Dome Communications specializing in corporate social responsibility work, which is a type of self-regulation meant to make businesses more accountable to their social and environmental footprints. It was the early 2000s, and Hazan said that it became clear to her that her clients weren’t ready to meaningfully engage with the work, so after less than a year she went back to school.
“I have always believed that I’m here to do good in the world and to make a difference, not to sell products,” she said.
Hazan earned her master’s in education and social policy at Northwestern. She went on to teach third, fifth and sixth grade in Chicago public schools, which she called the best and hardest work she’d ever done. Working with students and families experiencing such high levels of adversity — from trauma to racism to poverty was eye-opening for Hazan. It was one of her key “a-ha” moments.
“I really came to understand in a way that I had only known theoretically before, what poverty looks like, and feels like and the toll it takes on the ability to achieve academically, and, of course, the social, emotional, and mental health burden as well,” Hazan said.
That cemented her belief that not only can education be truly transformative, particularly for the most disadvantaged populations, but that students need more than rigorous curriculum. That’s why she’s made developing community schools that provide wraparound services that can include healthcare, nutrition and expanded learning opportunities one of her key priorities.
Community schools have been a buzzy concept at SDUSD, and the district has already begun to implement those practices at five schools. For Hazan, they represent an acknowledgment that kids exist within the context of their families, so when families are struggling, kids struggle. Hazan believes some of the obstacles to student success that have long caused the achievement gap to be so closely correlated with existing socioeconomic divides can be removed by meeting some of the underlying needs of historically underserved and struggling families.
In 2009, Hazan moved back to San Diego to work at the local nonprofit Jewish Family Services and created a series of programs to teach leadership skills to high school students. Hazan said it was a way to put into practice her belief that everyone has the capacity to create change in their communities.
But the work exposed her to food insecurity, and the ramifications it can have on students. Jewish Family Services had just begun doing food distributions to active-duty military families, and Hazan remembered thinking “wait, there are people –– active-duty military members serving our country –– who can’t afford to put food on the table?”
“This was this sort of reminder of the effect of a lack of financial stability (and) poverty, all of these sort of ‘a-ha’s’ I had in the classroom coming back again in a different way,” she continued.
Thanks to this new “a-ha” Hazan launched an entity called the Hunger Advocacy Network which brought together organizations across San Diego to advocate for state and federal policies dealing with food insecurity. It reinforced her interest in policy work and gave her a new appreciation for the need to develop solutions specific to the needs of San Diego families. It also strengthened her belief that developing community schools that can provide nutrition to students struggling with food insecurity –– and the negative effects such insecurity can have on learning –– should be a key priority for the district.
Hazan eventually became Jewish Family Service’s chief philanthropy officer. In that role, she oversaw a $30 million annual individual and institutional fundraising budget.
“Because I’m a visionary thinker and have ideas about new initiatives and programs, it also requires resources,” Hazan continued. “So I’m good at finding dollars to support these ideas.” Hazan touts that ability to find dollars as being a useful skill for an SDUSD board member, and one she hopes to capitalize on to fund some of her priorities, specifically to advance the development of community schools.
“That doesn’t have to come from District dollars, we can leverage the resources that are available through local community-based organizations, through health centers, through the county through the city,” Hazan said.
Hazan’s also spent years doing policy and advocacy work outside of her 9-to-5 workday, from serving on San Diego’s Human Relations Commission for nearly a decade and California’s Children and Families Commission, also known as First Five, which works to provide funds to improve the lives of children.
But in recent years, she turned her focus to her neighborhood school. As Hazan’s eldest daughter grew, she took her on walks to the park and spoke with other parents about local schools. She discovered few people were enrolling their children in Kensington’s neighborhood public school, Franklin Elementary. After digging into the specifics of Franklin, she felt like it was a great school and that kids were “happy, healthy, learning and thriving.” Hazan felt many of the concerns she heard were misconceptions about the quality of that school, mostly tied to test scores, which in turn were largely tied to the achievement gaps associated with poverty.
“I talk to families across District B and a lot of people are opting out of our public schools,” Hazan said. “Not because housing is too expensive, not because they’re moving outside of San Diego but because they’re not happy with the education that’s provided, or the perception of the education that’s provided.”
Along with other parents and educators, she organized rallies, hosted events at her home and raised funds to support Franklin, and said they were able to boost its enrollment going into the pandemic. It was a collaborative effort, but something she thinks can be replicated in a more systematic way across the district. She thinks the district should engage in large-scale marketing to tell the story of the efforts being made in schools, while also creating opportunities to listen to parents’ concerns. She believes doing so could help ease the decline in enrollment seen across the district in recent years.
“We’re talking about the second-largest school district in the state of California with the resources not to do this on a grassroots level, but to actually develop policies, procedures, marketing templates,” Hazan said.
She also sees a lack of systematic implementation of practices like restorative justice and standards-based grading for example, as an issue within the district. She supports the broader adoption of both but feels they need to be implemented in a more even, standardized way. Standards-based grading 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 and its adoption has elicited pushback.
Hazan said it’s unfair to students to have some classes adopting the method while others haven’t and that she’s heard from some educators who feel they’ve been left on their own to figure it out. And when it comes to restorative justice practices, she feels more training for educators and principals is needed.
“I’ve seen some schools that have really transformed through the use of restorative practices, and other schools where it’s the same old,” she said.
But Hazan believes communicating the ways in which schools are succeeding needs to go hand in hand with increased transparency, something the district’s lack of has consistently frustrated parents. Hazan said it’s hard for people to sift through data about how students are doing or figure out how the district spent the hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID relief funds it received. Increased transparency could give stakeholders a better understanding of not only how it’s spending funds, but what, if any, difference those investments have made in the lives of students. Her acknowledgment of the district’s “hostility to transparency,” as The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board put it, is one of the reasons it endorsed her prior to June’s primary election.
“My hope is there can be a culture shift (that recognizes) that when we promote communications and transparency sometimes that means we’re not telling a story about something perfect. Sometimes it means we didn’t get it right and we have to actually say that out loud,” Hazan said.
“We can’t solve problems when we don’t identify them … so when we say we’re knocking it out of the park every single time we’re going to keep doing the same things,” she said.
When it comes to the closure of schools during the pandemic, like her general election opponent, Godwin Higa, Hazan said that based on the information available at the time she would have supported the transition to virtual learning. But with what we now know about the significant negative ramifications on mental health and student achievement virtual learning had on students, and the ability to implement effective mitigation measures she said, “it’s clear that the best place for students to grow academically and socially is in-person in safe, stable, and nurturing school communities.”
In addition to the Union-Tribune editorial board, Hazan’s been endorsed by the local Democratic party and nearly every notable regional Democratic official, including California Senate Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, San Diego City Council president Sean Elo-Rivera and Board of Supervisor’s Chair Nathan Fletcher. She’s also been endorsed by the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents local teachers, and whose support is often make or break for candidates in SDUSD board races. And that mountain of endorsements seems to be paying off.
In the primary, Hazan received more than double the votes of her general election opponent, Godwin Higa. The $103,000 Hazan has raised, $5,000 of which she loaned her campaign, also dwarfs the around $5,000 Higa has raised. That fundraising haul is around the same as what both candidates who’ve advanced to the general election in District C have raised.
Hazan credits her successes to working hard and developing relationships — something she says she’ll continue to do if she wins in November. For her, the campaign is about winning, and she’s committed to doing what it takes to do so, even if she insists it’s not her favorite place to be.
“People see me as very outgoing and comfortable in this role, but the spotlight isn’t my favorite place,” she said. “It’s about the work for me, the other stuff is just the shit you have to do to get to do the work.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of years Shana Hazan taught in Chicago. She was a teacher for two years.