The first Latino in 25 years to serve on the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education will take his oath of office Monday night.

As executive director for the Center for Community Engagement at Cal State Long Beach, Juan Benitez said he’s not new to the community or working in it, and he’s ready to keep doing that as an “accessible and present” board member.

“This is what I’ve been doing for more than half my life,” he said.

Juan Benitez is a professor and the Executive Director of the Center for Community Engagement at Cal State Long Beach. Photo courtesy of CSULB.

The single father and CSULB professor won his seat on the board with over 60 percent of the vote.

First up on his to-do list: working to address educational disparities and achievement gaps across the district. While he likes the work the district is doing on this front already, he believes it can do better.

“When you look at graduation and college-going rates at Cabrillo and Poly and Jordan, for example, versus Lakewood, Wilson, the PACE program at Poly, there’s a disparity there across the district,” Benitez said. “I think we can have a high quality education across the district, both within schools in terms of our most vulnerable populations, but also across the district in terms of geography and the neighborhoods.”

The district has already been working on this, board President Megan Kerr said. The district has set a goal that each school close achievement gaps in state testing by 50 percent every year.

“I don’t think anyone’s against eliminating our achievement gap here in the district, I just think it’s a matter of advancing that,” Benitez said. “I come from a research background, so I think that evidence-based decision-making is important.”

Kerr said Benitez brings a lot to the table, especially with his experience in working with community organizations and through his job. School board meetings aren’t the most well-attended meetings in the city, she acknowledged.

“Family engagement and parent engagement correlates with student success,” Kerr said.

Part of Benitez’s plans to get more people to board meetings might be a little tricky, though, Kerr said. One idea he has is to move board meetings into the community, possibly on an intermittent basis, to school sites and possibly moving meetings from 5 to 6 p.m.

“A lot of people cant make it at 5 o’clock to the district offices,” Benitez said.

Moving the meetings to local school sites would encourage people in the neighborhoods to go to meetings and it would “bring the district to them,” he said.

But this might not work everywhere. California state law requires public meetings to be accessible to people with disabilities, and not all school sites are completely ADA compliant yet.

The idea isn’t completely impossible though, Kerr said. When she started on the board in 2014, meetings were on Tuesday nights at the same time as City Council meetings. The board decided to change the meetings to mainly Wednesday nights so people didn’t have to choose which governmental body they wanted to engage with.

“Its always a good discussion to have,” Kerr said.

Another priority on Benitez’s list is to implement a district-wide policy on school discipline, focusing on restorative justice and relationships. The district currently has “guidelines” to discipline, but they are adapted to each school site.

“It’s not like we’re not in compliance or anything like that, but having a school discipline policy that actually upholds a commitment to relationship-centered schools, keeping our students in the classroom, working along with students, not just making perspective decisions, punitive decisions around school discipline,” Benitez said.

Valerie Osier is the Social Media & Newsletter Manager for the Long Beach Post. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @ValerieOsier