First of two parts.
When Dr. Andrew Pulver stepped into the role of Superintendent of Education for the Los Alamitos Unified School District a month ago, he was well aware of the super large footprint left by his predecessors.
Under his most recent predecessor, Dr. Sherry Kropp, the system further emerged as a state and national leader in excellence in the classroom and in other endeavors, a fact of which the new superintendent is well aware.
“I think we’re on the right path,” said Pulver in an interview this week. “I’m not sure we need to turn at all,” he said, clearly grateful for everyone in the LAUSD system that have worked to elevate the system to its current position.
In addition, Pulver said the LAUSD board of education was “very stable” and engaged.
Nevertheless, Pulver knows that education must always evolve around society’s shifting norms, and he is very clear about why he wanted to become superintendent and where he plans to lead the system.
Moreover, his own hardscrabble background, he believes, has instilled in him the exact kind of cultural values and intellectual pursuits that will be helpful in making a major impact.
To understand Pulver, you have to go back to his childhood when he was born the 13th of 15 children to the same parents in Rancho Cucamonga. Not a dozen but one of 15 children being raised under the same roof.
“We were scraping by,” he said, but it was a very loving household, with a mom and dad whom Pulver said were role models for “servant leadership.”
“I can remember, with 15 kids, you had to set up a lot of chores, so my dad established that we all have different jobs in the kitchen after dinner,” said Pulver. “Somebody would be assigned to clear the table, another sibling would be assigned to wash the dishes, put the food away, whatever it happened to be,” he said.
Although his mom and dad have both passed, Pulver realizes now the brilliance of his dad’s rules.
“So every week our chores changed but if you were the dishwasher you were the “Boss” of the kitchen for that week. And if you were the boss, if my job was to clear the table, when you were done you had to go ask the ‘boss’ for permission to leave the kitchen, and he, or she, had to go inspect your work and if I dismissed them and found later that the table was dirty, it was on me.”
“So what would happen every once and a while one of the siblings would get really strict, into the, for the lack of a better word, ‘power’ that came with being the boss of the kitchen, but then guess what, a week later, someone else would be the boss.”
“Guess what, in a week, you’re no longer the boss and that person could be doing that to you so you would have to learn, over time, that if I’m a jerk, if I don’t handle this person kindly, they are going to toe the line just as hard on me the next time around,” he said.
“Those are little life lessons that my dad and my mom always taught us to remember what its like in everyone else’s shoes.”
With so many older siblings, by the time he was in the 2nd grade, Pulver was already “Uncle Andy.” Pulver attended Catholic school for eight years before graduating from Alta Loma High School.
Although many of his siblings attended community college, he wanted to attend a four-year college and was able to enroll in University of California Riverside. Two years in, Pulver could “no longer afford it” so “I really had to swallow my pride” as he settled for Chaffey Community College.
There, however, Pulver said it was like destiny. “I began to thrive.” Pulver said Chaffey was was perfect for him as he got involved in student government. And, instead of having 500 students per class, the smaller class sizes boosted his grades and his motivation.
Pulver, raised in a devout Catholic home of 15 kids whose dad and mom always wanted one of them to become a priest or a nun, decided it might be his calling to become a priest.
He enrolled in St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo and studied theology for a year.
That was just long enough, however, for him to determine being a priest was not his calling. “As much as I felt my calling was to improve the lives of students, I knew it was not being a priest, per se.”
Pulver did go on to finish his education at Loyola Marymount, a Catholic University, where he was able to get grants and where he was able to work in student housing in exchange for fees.
Moreover, just two months on campus, his fellow students elected him Speaker of the Student Senate. Also, it was there that he remembers one of his family counseling professors telling him “Andrew, you’re going to be a leader and do great things one day.”
After getting his teaching credential from Loyola (Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies), he wanted to give back to his faith by teaching in Catholic schools for three years before starting his public school journey that would eventually lead to his present position in the superintendent’s office.
While still teaching at the Catholic school, Pulver said he applied for teaching positions at Los Al, Long Beach and Garden Grove and got offers from all three. “I will never forget,” said Pulver, when speaking to then McAuliffe Principal Dennis Sackett, telling him he had an appointment at Long Beach at 3 p.m.
“You might want to come by here at 1:00 p.m.,” Pulver said Sackett told him, “then you will not likely want to attend the 3 p.m. meeting.”
Pulver did go by and Sackett was correct. Pulver accepted Sackett’s offer on the spot and became a science teacher at McAuliffe Middle.
He was unsure about teaching middle school but quickly felt like “I loved teaching middle school.” Pulver said he quickly discovered how “impressionable and moldable” middle school students could be, and that “they have personality and are already good thinkers. “They get your humor and, as a teacher, you can connect, shape them, and every day is a new day,” said Pulver.
While teaching science at McAuliffe, he obtained his Masters Degree from Alliant International Unversity in Educational Administration and eventually became Assistant Principal.
While he loved McAuliffe, he wanted the opportunity to become a principal, applying for one of three open spots before being selected to lead the then troubled Lee Elementary School in Rossmoor.
“It (Lee) was somewhat fractured at that time,” said Pulver, remembering that parents were coming to the board meetings to complain. Also, he remembers Carol Hart, then Superintendent, telling him she selected him thinking he could be a “consensus builder. You have it in you,” Pulver said Hart told him.
Now, as principal at Lee, Pulver accepted the challenge and like his time at McAuliffe, “absolutely loved it,” transforming Lee from declining enrollment to students “wanting to come to Lee.”
Later, when two Assistant Superintendent positions opened up five years later, Pulver struggled with which one to apply. He said he truly enjoyed curriculum, but also wanted to work with people in human resources.
Pulver had obtained his doctorate from the University of Southern California in Educational Leadership and was ready for new challenges.
Serving for eight years under Dr. Kropp as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources was the right choice, he says, and for Pulver, it means that many of those serving now in the system came through his office.
“I believe people, not programs, make a difference,” said Pulver.
So Pulver assumes the office of Superintendent with a unique background, working his way up through the system of education with a history of making the best of hardship and understanding the value of inclusion.
Not only does he want the people best suited for the positions within the LAUSD, but he plans to empower them with a culture where all students can thrive.
“We are so fortunate to have the kids that we have; it doesn’t mean they won’t challenge us, push boundaries or that they don’t come from different kinds of home lives, but we have amazing kids that we get to partner with,” said Pulver.
Also, he says LAUSD have parents that always “rally” around the system.
His dream is not to turn away from the system’s current path, but to build a deeper culture of collaboration that will serve to accelerate the progress the district has already experienced.
Pulver’s long road to the superintendent’s office has, he believes, given him values and lessons of life that enables him to see an exciting road ahead for the Los Alamitos Unified School District.