Jen Ezpeleta

New HBCSD superintendent met by COVID, back to school challenges

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Jason Johnson became Superintendent of the Hermosa Beach City School District on July 1. Photo by Philicia Endelman

by Ryan McDonald

Jason Johnson became Superintendent of the Hermosa Beach City School District on July 1, as coronavirus caseloads were increasing in California’s second wave, and spring hopes of a fall return to in-person instruction were looking increasingly unlikely. The pressure over the return to campuses has not abated for Johnson, a product of South Bay schools who took office at 35, relatively young for a superintendent.

Johnson replaced Pat Escalante, who helmed the district for nearly a decade and saw it through a demographic peak, when enrollment soared and pushed classrooms beyond capacity. Much of Escalante’s tenure was defined by battles over how to address crowding, which ultimately resulted in the passage of a bond measure and the decision to rebuild and reopen the former North School, now under construction and to be known as “Vista.” Those issues, which often brought in people who no longer had children in the district, will remain for Johnson, but have been superseded by the more immediate issues associated with distance learning.

Johnson came to Hermosa from the Redondo Beach Unified School District, where he served as a teacher and an administrator. Before that, he had worked as a special education teacher at Markham Middle School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, serving a student population that was almost entirely low income, many of whom also brought challenges of childhood trauma or limited English proficiency into the classroom. The experience helped define his sense of mission as an educator.

“The truth is that school as an institution, for a big portion of people beyond just special education students, is incredibly difficult. I really believe that our mission as educators is to fill in that gap, to make it accessible for all,” he said in July.

Hermosa, like all districts in the county, began the year with distance learning. Hermosa had halted in-person classes in March. Despite the difficulties, teachers said relatively few Hermosa students “dropped off.” (Other, less affluent school districts in the state experienced, and continue to suffer from, significant gaps in distance learning, with as many as one-third of all students regularly absent.) As the new year approached, faculty leaders complimented Johnson and the administration for a collaborative approach to the coming year.

“I think the consensus, among [the Hermosa Beach Educators Association], and also the district administration, is that we really want to reassure our families that we are working diligently to provide our students with the absolute best education and social-emotional support,” Lia Navas, a second-grade teacher and president of the local educators association, said shortly before classes resumed for the fall.

At the beginning of the month, Hermosa received a waiver from the Department of Public Health that would allow kids in transitional kindergarten up to second grade return to the classroom, but Johnson said the return will not take place until the new year. ER

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