Janice Adams loves the first day of school. The excitement, the possibilities – everything about it.
“I’ve had 53 first days of school,” she says, her enthusiasm evident in her smile. ”You get a chance to meet a new group of kids and you have the opportunity to do something new and different.”
She’s experienced those first days as a student from kindergarten through two master’s degrees, and as a teacher, parent, principal and now superintendent of the Benicia Unified School District. “There are not many careers where you have a distinct start and a clear end, and you get to learn something every year.”
Janice spent her early years on the East Coast before moving to Belmont with her family while she was in middle school. She worked as a special education teacher in Arizona and spent four years teaching elementary students at the International School in Japan before joining the Benicia school district in 1990.
She was working as a resource teacher at Mills Elementary when then-principal Ellen Blaufarb encouraged her to enter administration. Janice spent two years as an assistant principal in Fairfield before returning to Benicia as the principal of Semple Elementary in 2000. After a year as Benicia’s interim superintendent, she became the district’s top official in 2007. The district serves about 5,000 students and has about 500 employees, making it the largest employer in town.
Janice, 58, is married to Vallejo school teacher Pete Adams, who plans to retire in June. They moved to Benicia 21 years ago and raised their family here. All three children – Sam, 25; Sean, 23; and Meredith, 21 – graduated from Benicia High School.
Why did you decide to become a teacher?
I had great teachers, I loved school, and I enjoyed the experience of working with kids, so it was a natural fit for me. I was one of those kids who always played school (laughing). I wanted to do something constructive and of value to society.
Why did you move to Japan to teach?
We wanted to travel and we were both teachers so we didn’t have a lot of money. It was a great school and we were paid well and we got to travel a lot. … When Sean was born, it became harder to travel. And we missed grandparents, so we decided to come home.
What lead you to Benicia?
Pete got a job at Concord High School and we bought a home in Benicia because we fell in love with the community. He loves the water and we have a sailboat – he’s a great sailor.
What do you do as superintendent?
I spend a lot of my time with my leadership team. I get to interact with teachers, I get to interact with parents, and sometimes I get to interact with kids – that’s the most fun.
I get about 150 emails a day, and that’s with the highest level of filtering possible. I always try to get back to parents within 24 hours, but sometimes it’s just not possible. I hope they understand.
I deal with problems that couldn’t be resolved at a lower level. I consider it a good day if I can resolve one or two of those. …
Financial matters are taking a lot of my time these days.
It’s varied and it’s interesting and it’s stimulating. I really like it.
What’s your favorite aspect of being the superintendent?
My favorite part is being able to help shape the culture of the district. I’m very child-centered so I think about what’s best for the kids, and I always try to set that culture throughout the district. I want everyone to remember that we’re really here to serve our students and our community and our parents. I like being the person to influence that culture, make it a more inclusive and welcoming culture. The leader does set a tone about how we treat people.
What do you value about education?
I’m so proud of our country because we believe in educating every single child. It is a great experiment in the United States to have public education for everyone. … I think democracy requires well-educated citizens who can process information, and public education is key to that. …
Every parent knows that five-year-olds love to learn. You know the joy they have as they walk into a classroom. That feeling, that desire to learn, should stay with them. We should inspire them to be life-long learners.
How has education changed since you became a teacher?
It’s changed dramatically over the years. There’s so much information available now. Education used to be about giving information to kids. There was a base of knowledge, and you taught them that information. That’s changing now because all that information is on their phones. Now the job is to help kids sort through all that information, help them see what’s factual and what’s not factual.
What changes do you see happening in public education during the next five years?
I’m very worried about public education. I’ve been such a strong supporter of it, I’ve spent my life in it.
I remember what it was like to go to public schools in California when I was growing up, and it’s not like that anymore. We’re 47th in the country in terms of spending, and that does matter.
I know people pay a lot in taxes, but it doesn’t come back to schools. There has to be a more stable way to fund schools. In Benicia, we’ve cut $3.5 million out of a $32 million budget in the last two years…. I’m very worried about the next few years.
What’s the district’s current financial status?
To balance the budget for 2010-11, we need to cut $1 million more. …
We understand the need to be fiscally responsible and fiscally conservative at this time. But right now we have no money for textbooks, we’ve cut all the supply budgets. Right now we’re trying to preserve programs for the students.
What’s happening with the proposed parcel tax?
I’m thrilled there’s a group that’s moving forward on this. But as the superintendent, I can’t be involved or advocate for it in any way.
What do you do to relax?
I read a lot. I like to read fiction, a lot of contemporary fiction. I try to intersperse some children’s literature just to keep current. Right now I’m reading a lot of Swedish mysteries (holding up The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson). It’s escapist for me, a way to relax. …
I like to sail. I like to travel and spend time with my friends and family. … Pete and I like to walk. We walk a lot along the water.
You know, I just love being part of the community — not that I have time to be on any boards or anything like that. But I love going out to the restaurants and seeing people I know. I like that feeling of being part of the community.
What makes you smile?
I love sunshine. I love sunny days and seeing people I know and my kids and my husband. My greatest joy is being a mom.