Profile

Charting Yakima on a Far-Reaching Roadmap

by Jay Goldman

Ben Soria’s metaphor of choice as the superintendent in Yakima, Wash., is the roadmap. It’s an effective visual tool for plotting the commitment it will take to translate a vision for measurable learning gains by every student into reality.

In living color, Soria’s ubiquitous roadmap hangs on corridor and office walls in every Yakima school, administrative office and meeting room—something to show, he says, “where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. … There’ll be fuel stops along the way, but we need to stay the course.”

On a personal level, the roadmap seems especially apropos for Soria, whose own upbringing began in the farming state of Veracruz in his native Mexico before a family move into the central plains of Kansas, where he spent most of his school-age years. His travel log includes teaching and administrative stints in Santa Ana, Calif., an associate superintendency in Albuquerque, N.M., and an 11-year mid-career break from education to oversee a television production company in Oakland, Calif. In the latter capacity, he developed bilingual children’s programming for the Public Broadcasting System only a few years after the launch of Sesame Street.

Those experiences as a corporate entrepreneur have turned up regularly in his five years as a tenacious yet pragmatic head of the 14,500-student Yakima system in central Washington. Soria has set bold targets, challenged the status quo inside classrooms and raised business-like questions to his colleagues and school board about cost effectiveness and cost tradeoffs when confronting limited fiscal resources. He has insisted on adopting research-based instructional practices in reading and math that now are materializing into significant learning gains at the elementary grade levels.

He refuses to cite the district’s high-poverty status (73 percent qualify for the federal lunch program) and its large migrant makeup (40 percent of students are native Spanish speakers) for anything beyond a contextual explanation. “When Ben got here, he said all of that is true, but we need to stop using it as an excuse,” says Sarah Jenkins, editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Through his assertive actions, the superintendent made few friends at first among Yakima teachers and parents. With a sense of urgency and expediency, he dismissed a popular principal at a low-performing elementary school midway through her first year, forcing him to explain his actions before 700 angry parents in the school gym. In another early encounter, he says, “a teacher of 26 years said to me, ‘I resent what you’re trying to do. I know how to teach reading. You’re pushing a very didactic system on us.’”

He’s persisted, in no small measure due to a special knack for forging creative partnerships. “He knows how to match what others can offer with a specific need,” says Barbara Greenberg, president of the Yakima school board for the last eight years. “He doesn’t waste opportunities or misuse them. It’s exciting to watch the magic happen.”

Soria, whose fluency in Spanish is an immense asset at any public forum, sprang one magical moment this past spring with a formal joint announcement with the Mexican government. The novel partnership will bring high-caliber curriculum from Mexican schools—some of which the superintendent likens to the International Baccalaureate program. The instructional modules in various subjects will be used with Spanish speakers in Yakima’s elementary and secondary schools under an agreement among Mexico, the district and the state education agency in Washington, which will provide the resources to align the Spanish-language instruction to state academic standards.

Soria, who turns 65 in December, hopes to be around to see the Mexican curriculum boost the graduation rate of Hispanic youngsters, put a significant dent in Yakima’s dropout rate, which is the highest in the state, and spark the same performance gains on the 10 th grade reading and math assessments that have begun to show up in the lower grades. “We still have to climb some mountains,” he says, the roadmap always in hand and on his mind.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS:
Ben Soria

Currently:
superintendent, Yakima, Wash.

Earlier:
deputy superintendent, Takoma, Wash.

Age:
64

Greatest Influence on Career:
The first would be my father who only had a 4 th-grade education and taught me I could be whatever I worked hard to be. The second was Rene Cardenas, whom I teamed up with to produce an educational bilingual children’s television program called “Villa Allegre.” He taught that if you believe in something, you can make it happen.

Best Professional Day:
When the district received its 2003-04 state student assessment results and we learned we had made double-digit improvement in reading at the 4th and 7th grade levels.

Books at Bedside:
First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

Biggest Blooper:
Not calling off school when a major snowstorm hit the area after school started. It was snowing lightly in the morning when buses rolled and the weather forecaster did not predict much accumulation.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
I have a responsibility to belong to my profession’s professional organization. AASA is a strong national voice that does an excellent job of representing our educational views. The published articles allow me to stay up-to-date on educational issues and provide an excellent source for learning how other districts are addressing what may be common concerns.