Interview: Benicia Unified Superintendent Dr. Charles Young

Malcolm Slight

Benicia’s new school superintendent is fired up.

That enthusiasm is apparent when Charles Young talks about students, reading, teachers, half-marathons, cooking, technology and more.  His face brightens, his speech quickens and ideas come tumbling out in rapid succession. He draws on concepts from top scholars in education and his own experiences during 29 years in the field.  

Charles, 54, wants to make Benicia’s public schools even better so all students can thrive beyond high school. He became Benicia’s superintendent in July and spent his initial 100 days getting to know the district of about 5,000 students and 450 employees. Now he’s ready to lead.

And that excites him as well, especially with so much attention focused on public schools these days.  Standardized tests are scrutinized, the amount of homework is questioned and foundations are putting up funds to reinvent the education system from the ground up. His response?  “We’re having discussions about learning spaces in society as a whole—I’ve never seen that,” he says. “This is an exciting time to be in education.”

Charles is an avid reader and writer. He has published several articles on education topics, and he blogs on his website, drcharlesyoung.org. While talking with Benicia Magazine, he referred to numerous books related to the subjects being discussed. He’s also part of a book club started by district employees.

Charles came to Benicia after four years as associate superintendent of educational services in Palo Alto. He’s also been a high school English teacher, a vice principal and principal at the elementary and middle-school level, and a director of secondary education at the district level. He has a doctorate degree from the University of La Verne.

He is a member of several professional organizations, including Technology Information Center for Administrator's Leadership. He lives in Alamo with his family.

Why did you want to be superintendent here? I think a lot of things attracted me, including the really good, excellent work they’ve done and are doing for kids. Coming from a larger district, I felt I could really get to know the place. Have you read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell? In it, he talked about how big is not always better.

I also like the arts. Looking around, one of the other things that attracted me is the commitment here to music, drama and art.

What did you learn about Benicia and its schools during your first 100 days? There’s a strong identity with Benicia. People love their schools and they love their town. So many were born here and left, then came back, or they were born here and never left.  
    
I found there’s a culture of collaboration, a culture of partnership. Parents are really committed to schools.

What are your goals now that you’ve had some time to learn about the district? I think when they come to school, students need to feel they are known and valued and recognized. They need to feel that their uniqueness is recognized and supported. They need to have the opportunity to express their unique talents as learners. There should be safety and a sense of belonging and recognition.
    
I also want the kids to feel like their teachers are supported in their efforts, that they like being here.

Also, I want to see high levels of engagement. There is discipline to creating that, to be sure, but there’s a real excitement about the way a teacher designs lessons that allow students to learn in different ways.

What components are needed for a successful school? There are three things that go into making a successful school.

First, student-centered decisions. You work to keep students at the center of every decision.

Second, creating schools that are safe and welcoming, where there’s a sense of community, of belonging. We are wired to be socially connected.

Third, be forward thinking. I’m a little bit obsessed with this. Our classrooms now are based on a model developed for the Industrial Age and we have to look to the needs of the future.

How do you lead teachers and staff to rethink the way they do things? I keep posing these questions to people: What if? Why? How? Have you read A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger? It’s about asking questions so you look at something differently.  What if I used a different instructional model to teach?

How can our district be successful with the resources we have? We’ve been doing some great work in having conversations with BEF (Benicia Education Foundation) and the PTAs on how to raise money together.

But it all boils down to the teacher in the classroom. The most important thing is the teacher.  Getting the right person is key.  You ask any group of adults to raise their hands if a teacher made a difference in their lives, and hands go up all over the room.

What teacher made a difference in your life? One of my high school English teachers, Mr. Sheldon. He got us into reading, pulled us into the world of thinking and big ideas, pulled us into the world of literature—The Great Gatsby, The Stranger.

What do you read now? A lot of non-fiction, mostly on education and leadership. I’m reading Ken Robinson’s new book on change in education.  (Robinson’s latest book is Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education.)

What did you want to be when you were growing up? I didn’t know. I never wanted to be a firefighter. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular when I was young. In high school, I started thinking about wanting to be a teacher.

What do you do to keep balance in your life? I try to work out a lot, training for half-marathons. I like to be surrounded by my family. I like reading. My brother had a boat and we sail.

I like to cook—paella, soup. I love cookbooks. There’s something about cooking for friends and family, having everyone around, especially when they like the food you cooked for them.

What brings you joy? Living a life of meaning. At the end of the day, knowing I did make a difference somehow.  

I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve enjoyed all the jobs I’ve had and now this job. I’ve worked in great towns, great districts.  There’s this thing about gratitude for what you have, what’s around you. I think about that a lot.

I’ve never questioned the purpose of what I do.  Some days can be difficult, but what we do for the kids is what’s important. What we get to do if we come together as adults, to be thoughtful and disciplined in our thinking, what we can do to create this wonderful environment for students to reach their potential—that’s what matters.

This is my 29th year, and I still get totally fired up about doing this. I feel lucky about that.

Categories: Community, Education, Interview, People + Places