Since Virginia Strom-Martin and her husband moved to Duncan Mills 30 years ago, the population has nearly tripled, increasing from 35 to 85.
The small Sonoma hamlet beside the Russian River was the terminus of the long defunct North Pacific Railroad. Black Bart held up stagecoaches on the trail between Duncan Mills and Pt. Arena, up the coast.
A fourth generation Sonoma native, Strom-Martin grew up in Petaluma. Before her election to the Assembly in 1996, she spent 24 years as a teacher at the Wright School District halfway between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
Over the life of Strom-Martin’s career, the one school, K through 6 district added two more schools and saw its student population triple from 400 to 1,200.
Since August, Strom-Martin has been a legislative advocate for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the country with 694,288 students – down from a high of 747,000 three years ago and 219 year-round schools and 439 traditional calendar schools.
“It’s significantly bigger, yes, but it’s the same issues. Urban, suburban, rural schools share a lot of the same problems,” Strom-Martin said. “I taught at a very multi-ethnic school. Of course, Los Angeles is hugely multi-ethnic. Hundreds of different languages are spoken. But a lot of the challenges are the same whether a district is large or small.”
Strom-Martin’s career plan wasn’t to be a teacher. Even though her mother was a teacher for 34 years and her father for 31.
“You’re a senior in college and your major is art. I figured teaching was something I could do for awhile. So I got my credential and got a job.”
She taught third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes at Wright. During her last four years at the school she was part of a multi-grade – fourth, fifth and sixth – experiment she describes as the “best four years” of her teaching career.
The teaching method employed was thematic integrated instruction, a fancy way of saying the curriculum was centered on a single theme.
One semester, Strom-Martin’s theme was flight. So English, social studies, math, science, music and art revolved around flight. Another teacher did the environment. Another, oceans. What it means to be a citizen.
Strom-Martin used explorers another semester. Ships, galleons, the Spanish Armada. Pirates. Her kids had to plot a course around the globe while being chased by pirates.
“We had a ton of people visiting our school because it was something new. The upper grade teachers launched this and convinced the school board and the principal this was something we should try,” Strom-Martin said. “Kids were excited about coming to school. And because they were excited we got their parents into the classroom more.”
Strom-Martin’s mother was active in the California Teachers Association and urged her daughter to run for the CTA State Council, the union’s governing body.
She was a member of the council for eight years. Her colleagues on the council encouraged her to run for the seat being vacated by veteran Assemblyman Dan Hauser, forced out by term limits in 1996.
Although never holding public office until the Assembly, Strom-Martin said she’s always been personally active in politics. She worked for George McGovern when he ran for president. She was junior class president of her high school. She attended UC Berkeley – a hard place to avoid politics.
Strom-Martin’s initial 1996 campaign for the Assembly was a bruiser: Her versus four other Democrats including the area’s former congressman, Doug Bosco.
“I had the help of a lot of teachers also labor and environmentalists.”
Strom-Martin’s Assembly district basically stretched from Bodega bay to the Oregon border, including Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino and Lake counties and the northern third of Sonoma.
Go figure: Strom-Martin’s main focus as a lawmaker was education.
“Having come directly from a classroom to the Legislature I wanted to add my personal experience to the conversation.”
She chaired the Assembly Education Committee when California faced compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law.
“It’s a recipe for destruction of public schools,” she says of the law. “I think it’s designed to fail because it identifies at-risk kids but has never included the funding to truly help them.”
Strom-Martin was termed out of the lower house in 2002. She experienced four speakers during her three terms – Cruz Bustamante, Antonio Villaraigosa, Bob Hertzberg and Herb Wesson.
She was also active on environmental issues and remains a board member of Russian Riverkeeper. She’s also a director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.
In 2002, Strom-Martin set her sights on the North Coast Senate seat of Wes Chesbro but wanted to wait until 2006 when he was termed out.
Wesson appointed her to a term on the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board to see her through until her race for Chesbro’s seat.
“I learned so much about unemployment law. We had 25 or 30 cases a day we looked at,” Strom-Martin said. “The real wonderful thing about the job was you could telecommute. They set you up in your house so I could sit there in Duncan Mills and conduct these reviews.”
A bonus from the appointment was getting to better know Don Novey, the former head of California Correctional Peace Officers Association who made the prison guard union a powerful political player. Former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton appointed Novey to the appeals board.
Strom-Martin started a campaign for Chesbro’s seat but “unfortunately the stars were not aligned.”
Her husband, Don, underwent two serious back operations and was incapacitated for six months – right at the time Strom-Martin needed to be canvassing the district.
Despite the surgery, her husband, who grew up in Southern California, still surfs occasionally.
The two met at the faculty room of Wright School. He, a sixth grade teacher. She was then teaching fifth grade.
Strom-Martin’s first assignment after winning the LA Unified job, was coping with the problems of the district’s new $55 million payroll system, whose cost has now nearly doubled.
The system, approved by the district’s prior school board and superintendent in 2004, has raised havoc with teachers and classified employees alike. One teacher received a paycheck for 6 cents.
The teacher’s union was apoplectic – what better person to unruffled their feathers than Strom-Martin, the former CTA activist.
“I was impressed by the sincerity and concern of the district to get this put back together,” Strom-Martin said, obviously relieved the problems have tapered off allowing her to focus her energy elsewhere.
She is working with Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat, to improve a system called Express Enrollment, created through legislation Cedillo carried as an Assembly member.
The program automatically enrolls kids in Healthy Families and Medi-Cal, California’s health care program for the poor, when a student applies for free or reduced price lunches.
But more than half of the applications the district forwards to Los Angeles County for processing are kids who are already in Medi-Cal or Healthy Families, delaying the processing of those who aren’t yet enrolled. The legislation would allow the district to establish whether pupils are already enrolled in the programs and forward only kids who aren’t.
Key issues for the district also include English learners and drop-outs, Strom-Martin said. She says the easiest way to keep kids in school is to make them feel valued.
“Having a caring adult that is going to take a personal interest in them is the Number One thing. I attended a number of Darrell Steinberg’s hearings on drop outs and that issue came up over and over again from the kids who were testifying. Just having someone who cares whether hat’s a classroom teacher, a counselor, a nonprofit like Big Brothers or Big Sisters. If they don’t have that at home, they need a caring adult.”
Catch up with Virginia at Virginia.firstname.lastname@example.org
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