The Sonoma Valley Unified School District announced in March that Socorro Shiels will be offered the job as superintendent at the Board of Trustees meeting on April 17. She will replace Chuck Young, who held the job on an interim basis after the resignation of Louann Carlomagno last June. The Sun’s Sarah Ford spoke with Sheils about her background and her vision for the district.
Tell me about your upbringing and education.
I grew up in Dover, Delaware. It’s about the same size as Sonoma Valley, with one high school and two middle schools, like Sonoma Valley Unified. Education was a big part of my life. My mother taught at my elementary school and my dad served on the school board. They were the first in their families to go to college, and they valued education. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine, majoring in Spanish and Russian.
Talk about your work experience.
I’ve been in education for over 20 years. After graduating from Bowdoin I came to the Bay Area to teach bilingual first grade. One summer I taught teen girls who were pregnant or had a baby, in a van that had been converted into a classroom. It was my first taste of alternative education and I loved it. Later I taught students serving sentences at Juvenile Hall, and saw the many opportunities alternative education offered. I honestly thought that would be my path some day.
What came next?
I went into administration, as a high school vice principal in Pittsburgh, CA. I learned a lot about the smooth management of a high school, as well the dynamics of a one high school town, where there is a strong connection between the community and school. After that I became an elementary principal in Morgan Hill. But it was during the Silicon Valley boom and it was impossible to get housing. So I went to Sacramento, where I stayed for a decade. I worked for the Grant Joint Union High School District as Director of Multilingual Education and Professional Development, working on many issues concerning English language learners—we had predominantly Spanish (40-50 percent), Russian (about 20 percent), and Hmong (20 percent) speakers.
Then you pursued a PhD in Education?
Yes. I started at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. But I was far from home, so I returned to Sacramento where I had a house and a network of professionals to learn from. I’ll be finishing up my doctorate at UC Davis. At one time my goal was to be a professor of Education. But I learned during my time away from schools that my passion is on the ground with practitioners. I then returned to the Santa Clara Office of Education to work with schools and districts.
What did you do there?
I worked for the District Support and Improvement Department during the No Child Left Behind era, and realized that the approach didn’t resonate with me – telling people there’s one right answer is illogical when students are so different. There are many dynamic complexities including the unique learning styles of children, and the unique styles of teachers.
Then you returned to Morgan Hill?
Yes, as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction. I knew that was the right kind of job for me, working with the Principal and community for the best student outcomes. Morgan Hill is small and everyone worked together to optimize students’ experiences.
From there I went to Santa Rosa City Schools as Superintendent. Together we learned about shifts in education, from understanding and using restorative justice, to engaging an entire community. In my fourth year, the California Collaborative for Education Excellence (CCEE) was being shaped. I was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work there, advocating for the needs of districts and staff at the state level, also helping districts achieve the goals in the Local Control Accountability Plan. From the beginning it was clear: deep changes happen when we work with educators and not do things to them. This shift from NCLB to a culture that supports local problem-solving resonated with me. As a lifelong learner, always reflecting and growing, I began to feel that, while there are great conversations at the state level, what matters most to me is the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom. Then I was approached about the Sonoma Valley opening.
What do you see as some of the strengths and challenges of the SVUSD?
The assets include strong community support for public education, and a robust dialogue about serving all students. These inclusive conversations, with direct input from parents, students, and teachers, really matter. SVUSD is working towards more transparency and trust, where everyone gets involved. The whole state is continuing to learn about serving Special Education and English Learners, as is the district.
What do you hope to accomplish at SVUSD?
I believe that as we build an intentional culture of collaboration, possibilities for our future will amplify. We can create strategic visions that allow us to create the best learning opportunities.
This is a much smaller district than Santa Rosa. How do you feel about that?
I look forward to working side by side with principals and teachers. In large districts the superintendents are farther removed from classroom. The size of this community will allow me to be more hands-on.
What is your cultural heritage?
My dad was Scottish American, and my mom, whom I hope to move to Sonoma as well, is Mexican American. I’m bilingual but not a native speaker.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m humbled to be chosen and look forward to be serving. I know that great things for the children of this community are possible when we work together.