By Jim Tortolano
When you think of destinations, what might come to mind is a resort, an historic wonder, or perhaps a famous city. But would you envision a school district in the same terms?
Cyndi Paik, who on July 1 will become the superintendent of the Westminster School District, wants you to think so. In the brave new world of charter schools, faster-than-light technological changes and falling student numbers, the new top educator in the K-8 district is seeking to position the 10,000-student system as the place to be for 21st century kids.
“I want to continue to set the goal for the district as the destination district,” she says. She reels off a series of innovative programs and facilities in the WSD, but the bottom line for much of this progress is funding and attendance.
“The biggest challenge is always the budget,” she said, which is driven in part by how many students attend schools in the system. “In Orange County, 25 out of 28 districts are challenged with declining enrollment,” she added.
That includes Westminster, which is responding to the challenge with a fistful of offerings designed in part to appeal to parents and families seeking a top-flight place to send their children.
“We have specialized programs such as duel language immersion in Spanish and Vietnamese. We just added a GATE [Gifted and Talented Education] magnet school,” she said. “As of yesterday we had 80 new families from outside the district that are registering and starting this fall.”
But there’s more. “We will be launching in the fall ‘Code to the Future,’ a computer immersion program that has been recognized by the White House.” It is designed to teach computer coding – all those zeroes and ones, etc. which make a program on your Mac or PC run – to kids as young as kindergarten. “It will prepare our students in developing critical thinking skills and build confidence and prepare them for future college and career readiness.”
To get students thinking about their future, the AVID program will reach down into the WSD’s three middle schools. The acronym stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, and it has been successful in pointing more high school students toward university and college education.
It’s not just classwork that makes the WSD stand out, she feels. All three of the middle schools have what are called exploratory buildings, where science and technology and more can be explored in a hands-on environment. Two of the schools – Warner and Johnson – have modern gymnasiums complete with a stage, a band room and exercise facility – and the third – Stacey – will be getting one under the Measure T bond issue approved by voters in 2016.
Paik (pronounced pek) will be advancing to the top spot in the district after serving as assistant superintendent for instructional services. She will be succeeding Marian Kim Phelps, who left the WSD to become superintendent of the Poway Unified School District in San Diego County.
Paik’s journey to become the head of the Westminster system began in Korea where she was born. When she was 5, her family moved to the United States, landing in Los Angeles. “My dad’s dream was for me to become a teacher,” she said. “If he were here today, he’d be proud to see me become a superintendent. In Korea, teachers are very highly regarded, almost at a doctor level.”
Her career was driven in part by his confidence in her and the family story. “When I was young I saw that when my family came to America they struggled. They had to take menial jobs. The reason they came to America is my parents wanted to make sure that my sister and I had the best education and opportunity available. That’s why I needed to attain the highest level, my doctorate, which I got at USC.”
Paik is hoping to make the WSD the highest level in its own way. You might even say that she was destined for that mission.