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Solana Beach Superintendent Leslie Fausset retires after 40 years in education

Leslie Fausset
Leslie Fausset

By Marsha Sutton

When Leslie Fausset retires on March 30, she will have concluded a remarkable career in public education spanning four decades.

After seven years as superintendent of the Solana Beach School District, Fausset ends her career with a long list of awards and accolades all around. She is widely praised for her extensive knowledge, depth of experience, gentle style, collaborative approach and calm demeanor — and unanimously applauded for her ability to keep the interests of students front and center in every debate.

“At the local level and the state level, she’s been a wonderful champion for all kids and for education, and exemplifies what a superintendent and what an educator should be,” said former state Senator Dede Alpert.

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“I am personally forever in her debt and believe she is an unsung hero in one of the toughest and the most important fields of endeavor in our state and nation, education,” said Delaine Eastin, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Born and raised in Ojai, Fausset, 64, began her career in public education in 1972 as a first-grade teacher in the Poway Unified School District, where she worked for 26 years.

After six years as a teacher, she became a reading specialist, then project coordinator for state programs, then assistant middle school principal, elementary school principal and middle school principal.

“That was quite a transition and very fun,” Fausset said of her middle school years. “I was terrified of middle school kids and [in the end] absolutely loved them and left tearfully.”

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She then was named Poway’s director of communication, evaluation and staff development, a post she held for two years until she was promoted to assistant superintendent responsible for grades K-8. Her last position in Poway was as area superintendent with K-12 responsibility for one of three areas, from 1989 to 1998.

To Sacramento

When Fausset accepted an offer from Delaine Eastin in 1998 to be California’s Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, Fausset’s reputation expanded statewide. During five years in this position, she became known in Sacramento for her knowledge, child-centered focus and ability to forge consensus.

Fausset worked with Eastin, who served from 1995 to 2003, during a pivotal time in public education, when the movement toward greater accountability, testing and assessment took shape. During this time, the Public Schools Accountability Act, the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, and its achievement indicator the Academic Performance Index system, were implemented.

“I was privileged to have Leslie as my chief deputy at the department of education for over four years,” Eastin said in an email. “She was a principled, tireless, brilliant and talented chief deputy who assisted me to transform the department into a much more field- and child-focused entity.”

Fausset helped the department focus on how decisions affected children, Eastin said. “Whether it was preschool or school safety or immigration or testing or some other gauntlet, Leslie was sturdy and true to the children and their welfare,” she said.

Alpert, whose career in education and the legislature began as a school board member from 1983 to 1990 for the Solana Beach School District, remembered when Fausset joined Eastin’s team and moved to Sacramento.

“We lived together in Sacramento as roommates,” said Alpert, who was serving in the state legislature at the time. “I got to know her both personally and professionally.”

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Alpert, who first met Fausset over 30 years ago, said she “has the personality that makes her able to accomplish things and bring people together.”

Alpert said the work at the state level would not have happened as well without Fausset. “She was never one out in front to take credit [and] was always behind the scenes,” she said. “It was never about Leslie.”

“There was always politics involved, but you try to make it the best policy that you can, and that’s where she was really helpful,” said Alpert. “Policy and laws were better because of her.”

Working with Alan Bersin

In 2003, Fausset left Sacramento to work for about a year as a consultant until Alan Bersin, then superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, asked her to join his team as chief of staff and, a few months later, as deputy superintendent. On July 1, 2005, her title changed again, to interim superintendent, when Bersin left the 132,000-student district and a replacement was being sought.

Bersin’s seven-year tenure at the helm of SD Unified, the second largest in the state, was a turbulent time, and Fausset’s arrival in 2004 helped provide a steady, calming influence.

Bersin, who called Fausset “a consummate educator and terrific human being,” said she “knows budgets and personnel rules to be sure, but she knows how to apply them to organize schools and districts to maximize good teaching and better learning.”

“These qualities — developed and practiced by Leslie at every level of California’s educational system, from the classroom to the principalship to the superintendency,

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at the state, local and county levels — distinguish her career as unmatched in breadth, depth and scope,” Bersin said, in an email.

“I know of no one who has replicated her experience with the degree of achievement that she has attained,” he said. “Big districts, small districts, poor schools, rich schools — all of them mattered the same to Leslie Fausset.”

Fausset, he said, “saw through the unimportant and never lost focus on the goal of education reform: the improvement at scale, on a systemic basis, of teaching and learning in the classroom.” Bersin thanked her “for what her professional life has meant and the impact that it has had on that most precious of gifts: a free and democratic public education.”

Even though the district was in turmoil, Fausset said she accepted Bersin’s offer to join his staff, because “I had great respect for the work that was being done and for the people there who were pouring their hearts out to make the world better for kids.”

She cited her experience in Sacramento as preparation for work in a large urban district, work she said was “the most challenging.”

She has described Bersin as passionate about supporting disenfranchised children, a brilliant thinker who taught her to look at laws with a questioning, discerning eye.

The well-publicized dysfunction at SD Unified did not dampen her enthusiasm. “I always tell people, especially younger people, don’t be afraid of bigger places and don’t be afraid of harder challenges,” she said. “In some respects, the passion you feel about the work that you do can be very gratifying.”

To Solana Beach

One of the highest ranked districts in the county, SBSD serves about 3,000 students in grades K-6 at six schools – three in Carmel Valley, two in the city of Solana Beach and one in Fairbanks Ranch.

A lifelong resident of Solana Beach, Fausset viewed the chance to work in a small district, with elementary age children, at an office five minutes from her home, as serendipity.

Debra Schade, who was first elected to SBSD’s board of education in 2002 and is the longest-serving trustee, was part of the team that selected Fausset for the position of superintendent in 2005.

“The Solana Beach School District has been very fortunate to have Leslie Fausset lead our district for the past seven years,” said Schade, who called her skill in developing and mentoring staff and building consensus masterful. “Her laser focus on what is best for children has been at the heart of every decision.”

SBSD’s assistant superintendent of instructional services Katie McNamara joined the district in 2004 and said, “Leslie’s career has been defined by her clarity of vision and focus on meeting the needs of every student.”

Other education leaders also commented on Fausset’s skill and contributions.

“From the time I arrived in 2008, it was apparent that Leslie was a leader among educational leaders, not only in North County, but the greater San Diego region and state,” said Ken Noah, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District. “Her wisdom and experience are unparalleled, but her thoughtful, student-centered approach has helped guide us in our individual and collective decision-making.”

Rancho Santa Fe School District superintendent Lindy Delaney called Fausset “the consummate professional.”

“I have the utmost admiration for Leslie as an educational leader in her district and the north coastal schools,” said Dee Rich, former San Dieguito Union High School District board member. “She set the highest standards of educational excellence for her district and shared her knowledge with all the other districts.”

Overcoming poverty

Fausset’s advice to education leaders is to always keep kids at the center of every decision. Her principals echo this message.

Brian McBride, principal of Solana Pacific, a grades 5-6 school in Carmel Valley, called Fausset “a thoughtful and compassionate listener [who] has consistently put kids first in any conversation.”

Principal Jerry Jones of Solana Highlands, a grades K-4 school in Carmel Valley, said, “She has always been child-centered and has always supported our district to find ways to continually help all children maximize their learning potential.”

Teaching, Fausset said, is “a very isolated profession,” recalling how difficult her first year of teaching was and how she might never have continued if not for the support she received from veteran teachers. She considers professional development one of the highest priorities.

Julie Norby, principal of Solana Santa Fe in Fairbanks Ranch, said Fausset often shared her experiences as a first-grade teacher. “It was obvious that she loved being a classroom teacher and that she held the core belief that the most important factor in the success of a child is the teacher in the classroom,” Norby said.

Principal Lisa Denham of Skyline Elementary School in Solana Beach called Fausset “a visionary leader with integrity, a passion for children and education, and an ability to communicate with staff, students and parents across the district.”

Fausset called the continued decrease in education funding tragic, saying, “We’re cutting days and we’re cutting years and cutting back on time when honestly there’s more to learn and more to experience today than we had even yesterday.”

Fausset’s most passionate plea was for society to recognize the special needs of low-income students.

“We have to figure out how to help our children overcome poverty,” she said. “[Otherwise], they will never, particularly in this complicated world we are living in now, be able to access success.”

Still hopeful

With an institution that is by nature static, Fausset said educators must find a way “to become much more dynamic to deal with the changing needs of our students and the changing world we’re living in.”

One of the biggest challenges, she said, is how to stay current with technology and how to integrate technology successfully with teachers in real classrooms.

“I think there will always be a school,” she said. “There’s always going to be a role for instruction and a role for [face-to-face] interaction. But I think it might look differently.”

Despite all the hurdles facing public education, she is inspired by the enthusiasm and willingness of young educators to change and adapt to new styles of learning and teaching.

“There are incredible young people coming forward,” she said. “I meet people and kids every day who make me feel a lot better about the future. So I’m very hopeful.”

Among Fausset’s many achievements in the district, one highlight has been her work to strengthen the Solana Beach Foundation for Learning, which raises voluntary contributions to support many school programs.

Bryan Pruden, father of two Solana Beach children and president of the Solana Beach Foundation for Learning, called Fausset “incredibly humble” but someone who “has personally been more responsible than any other person I can think of in the positive effect she’s had on the Solana Beach community.”

“She has preserved one of the best educational experiences in the country for our children in very challenging times,” he said.

Commented Carmel Valley parent and SBFL board member Kristin Belsky, “Her willingness to reach out and connect with parents and volunteers fostered trust, motivation and inspiration within the community.”

“Leslie has a wonderful way of always making you feel appreciated and valued,” said Solana Beach parent and SBFL board member Jocelyn Seamans. “I think that this is one of Leslie’s strongest characteristics – there was always a sense of ‘working together’ to achieve a greater purpose.”

Although many felt she was over-qualified to head SBSD, Fausset has said that the work is always challenging until every student, no matter the district, is reaching their full potential.

“It’s true she could have taken on very successfully much bigger districts, but we’re awfully happy she picked this one,” Alpert said.

Fausset expressed “heartfelt appreciation to the community, students and staff for the privilege of working with them. I think that we have charted a path to ensure success for all students, and I appreciate the dedication and the care that this community has to that end. I have every confidence that the district will continue to thrive.”

Read below for full comments from admirers of Solana Beach School District superintendent Leslie Fausset on her retirement this week and her contribution to education over the past 40 years.

Alan Bersin, former superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District

It is my honor, and a great personal pleasure, to sing the career-earned praises of Leslie Fausset as an educator, as a reform-minded administrator and as a splendid human being and invaluable member of the community.

Leslie is a consummate educator with deep knowledge of the underlying core of education; i.e., the interaction of student and teacher in the presence of content. She understands the necessity for marrying skillful pedagogy with meaningful, appropriate and relevant content to achieve a successful classroom. She gets the theory and puts it into practice.

As an administrator, she grasps the difference between teaching and learning. It takes a great teacher and a willing student to make education work. She is an avid advocate equally for professional development and teacher accountability and for student discipline and diligence. Leslie knows budgets and personnel rules to be sure, but she knows how to apply them to organize schools and districts to maximize good teaching and better learning. She’s a leader.

These qualities – developed and practiced by Leslie at every level of California’s educational system, from the classroom to the principalship to the superintendency,

at the state, local and county levels – distinguish her career as unmatched in breadth, depth and scope. I know of no one who has replicated her experience with the degree of achievement that she has attained across the field of challenges. Big districts, small districts, poor schools, rich schools – all of them mattered the same to Leslie Fausset.

Based on my personal knowledge of her work as the state’s Deputy Superintendent of Education under Delaine Eastin, I invited Leslie to San Diego City Schools as Deputy Superintendent to succeed Tony Alvarado and to adjust and improve the reform program then underway in SD Unified. She made crucial leadership contributions, particularly in implementing the introduction of small schools into the district’s high school program. Tough but always fair and thoughtful, Leslie invariably saw through the unimportant and never lost focus on the goal of education reform: the improvement at scale, on a systemic basis, of teaching and learning in the classroom.

I count myself among the thousands and thousands of students, parents, teachers, administrators, school employees, colleagues and community members whom she touched in her unique way over the years. I join them in thanking Leslie, deeply from the heart, for what her professional life has meant and the impact that it has had on that most precious of gifts: a free and democratic public education. Thank you, Leslie.

Delaine Eastin, former California state superintendent of public instruction

I was privileged to have Leslie as my chief deputy at the department of education for over four years, my final four. She was a principled, tireless, brilliant and talented chief deputy who assisted me to transform the department into a much more field- and child-focused entity. We had as our anthem, “Is this in the best interest of our children?” and assisted the department staff to focus on children’s welfare and education and to be more sensitive to how edicts and decisions we handed down were affecting the field and key players in school districts, especially children.

During those years, many of my staff came up to me and expressed their joy at the new culture in the department and the esprit de corps that we fostered between and among ourselves and the field. We convened a number of task forces and we called on diverse district representatives to inform the process of policy making. We had many tough challenges and Leslie always had a brass backbone, no matter how difficult the challenges that were presented. Whether it was preschool or school safety or immigration or testing or some other gauntlet, Leslie was sturdy and true to the children and their welfare.

Leslie has continued her leadership in education, first in San Diego and then in her home district Solana Beach. Her selection to be president of the Basic Aid Districts is testimony to the high regard in which she is held by some of the highest performing districts in our state. I am personally forever in her debt and believe she is an unsung hero in one of the toughest and the most important fields of endeavor in our state and nation, education. I am privileged to call her my friend and hope she has a wonderful and well-deserved vacation.

Dede Alpert, former California state senator

Besides her knowledge, Leslie has the personality that makes her able to accomplish things and bring people together. She makes things run smoothly. … We lived together in Sacramento as roommates. I got to know her both personally and professionally. … Leslie was well-respected within the [California] Department [of Education] because she was an educator. …We worked together on policy and legislation. … There was always politics involved, but you try to make it the best policy that you can, and that’s where she was really helpful. She pulled people together.

She was never one out in front to take credit. … She was always behind the scenes. It was never about Leslie. … But things would not have happened as well without her. Policy and laws were better because of her.

She is so knowledgeable about curriculum issues and is so committed to all kids and how to make things work for all children. … She always worried about the poorer kids and wanted to see that they did well. … [She worked] not just for middle-class families but for all families in Solana Beach. … She’s really knowledgeable about the issues but she does seem to have a way about her. She’s the person who can bring people together. … At the local level and the state level, she’s been a wonderful champion for all kids and for education and exemplifies what a superintendent and what an educator should be. She’s just the best.

It’s true she could have taken on very successfully much bigger districts, but we’re awfully happy she picked this one. In Solana Beach we like to have the best of the best and what we got was Leslie. We were lucky she would take it on.

Bill Kowba, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District

Many of the staff were appreciative of her efforts as the interim superintendent in the transition period between the departure of Alan Bersin and the arrival of Carl Cohn. I have a very amicable relationship with Leslie as a fellow superintendent and have benefited from her insights as a veteran educator.

Dee Rich, former member of the Board of Education for the San Dieguito Union High School District

I have the utmost admiration for Leslie as an educational leader in her district and the North Coastal schools. I have served with her on a variety of school committees, and it was always a pleasure to work with her. She set the highest standards of educational excellence for her district and shared her knowledge with all the other districts. Her past experience in the California Department of Education helped give our Regional Legislative Network a working relationship with legislators and a continuing source of up-to-date information on policy changes and legislation in Sacramento. Her work on the School Liaison committees with Solana Beach and San Diego Council members showed her quiet strength and ability to get things done for the benefit of all students in the region. When she takes her well-deserved retirement, her leadership will be missed.

Ken Noah, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District

From the time I arrived in 2008, it was apparent that Leslie was a leader among educational leaders, not only in North County, but the greater San Diego region and state. Her wisdom and experience are unparalleled, but her thoughtful, student-centered approach has helped guide us in our individual and collective decision-making. I have appreciated her collaborative approach in ensuring that the students we serve have a seamless and high-quality educational experience from kindergarten through graduation. I know that I will miss her calm and analytical approach to critical issues and incredible ability to keep things in perspective, reminding us all of those things that are most important.

Lindy Delaney, superintendent of the Rancho Santa Fe School District

Leslie is the consummate professional. She has been a strong leader among superintendents in San Diego County and the state of California. I appreciate her perspective and guidance in matters related to education; she will be missed.

Debra Schade, member of the Board of Education for the Solana Beach School District

The Solana Beach School District has been very fortunate to have Leslie Fausset lead our district for the past seven years. Leslie has provided strong leadership to move our wonderful school district to greatness. Her belief that we are all lifelong learners has driven her decision-making and educational leadership. Leslie has been masterful in developing and mentoring staff and building consensus among all stakeholders. Her laser focus on what is best for children has been at the heart of every decision, and it has shown in the balance of care and professionalism demonstrated in her job every day. We wish her the best in retirement, but know that she will continue to give back to education in creative and unique ways for many years to come.

Katie McNamara, Solana Beach School District’s assistant superintendent of instructional services

Leslie’s career has been defined by her clarity of vision and focus on meeting the needs of every student. She is student-centered in her everyday decision-making and is known for saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” That is, when we focus on students who are struggling academically, all students benefit. The instructional progress we have made under Leslie’s leadership is a direct result of this philosophy. Leslie has always taken great pride in her work and been very serious about her charge to support children and teachers in the Solana Beach School District. While she has announced her retirement, I have no doubt that her impact and interest in supporting our profession will continue in the future.

Lisa Denham, principal of Skyline School (grades 4-6 in Solana Beach

Leslie Fausset has been an outstanding superintendent for the Solana Beach School District. She has been a visionary leader with integrity, a passion for children and education, and an ability to communicate with staff, students and parents across the district. Leslie has also been committed to raising student achievement for all children in the district. While SBSD is a high-performing district, she has continued to move the district forward, supporting the adoption of quality curriculum and ongoing staff development to provide all children with rigorous opportunities to reach their full potential.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had Leslie as a mentor these past five years. She has always looked at the individual needs of each school in our district, and has been supportive of the staffing needs and programs at each site. Leslie has always been available to listen and provide support whenever there has been a particular issue at my site, and I knew I could count on her experience and wisdom to help resolve the issue. I will miss working and collaborating with Leslie, and wish her nothing but the best in this next phase of her life.

Jerry Jones, principal of Solana Highlands School (grades K-4) in Carmel Valley

Leslie has been a fantastic leader for our district. Her knowledge, wisdom and experience have really served our district well in her tenure. She has always been child-centered and has always supported our district to find ways to continually help all children maximize their learning potential. In the time she has been our superintendent, our schools have made many changes that have positively impacted student achievement. Leslie has always said that great organizations should have a consciousness of imperfection, and this is something that has stood with me. In her tenure, we have worked hard as a school community to provide the best education for students.

Brian McBride, principal of Solana Pacific School (grades 5-6) in Carmel Valley

Leslie is an articulate speaker and we admire her for this skill. I believe that beyond her capacity to speak to individuals and groups, she is a thoughtful and compassionate listener. She always asks questions germane to the subject and thinks deeply before responding. She has consistently put kids first in any conversation and that’s an admirable quality.

Julie Norby, principal of Solana Santa Fe School (grades K-6) in Fairbanks Ranch

Leslie’s contributions to education are widespread, both locally and throughout the state. Her experiences in Poway, San Diego City Schools and of course in Sacramento with Delaine Eastin all contributed to her success in the Solana Beach School District.

One of the things that I always admired about Leslie is her fond memories of being a first-grade teacher. She referenced her time in the classroom frequently and shared many stories of her students’ success. It was obvious that she loved being a classroom teacher and that she held the core belief that the most important factor in the success of a child is the teacher in the classroom!

Leslie’s contributions to Solana Beach have been many. A few highlights: She has worked diligently to improve the quality of our lunch program, focusing on more healthy choices for our students. She has worked with stakeholders to champion the “Go Green” movement. And she holds a strong commitment to closing the “Achievement Gap,” leading many initiatives in our district to accomplish this goal.

Leslie is leaving the Solana Beach School District a better place than when she was hired, and isn’t that what we all hope will be the case when we retire? Leslie can leave our district knowing that we are on a great trajectory and that her time here was time well spent and meaningful.

Bryan Pruden, president of the Solana Beach Foundation for Learning

While Leslie is incredibly humble and will always credit others, she has personally been more responsible than any other person I can think of in the positive effect she’s had on the Solana Beach community. She has preserved one of the best educational experiences in the country for our children in very challenging times. The school district not only educates our children, they also function as the Parks and Recreation department for the city, since all of the sports fields and most open spaces are on school grounds. Leslie has been a strong supporter of keeping these spaces open for all to use.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to work with Leslie for the last few years, and I have learned a lot from her. She will be missed, although she has created a legacy that will continue for many, many years to come. I’m thankful to Leslie for many things, but most importantly, for providing an outstanding education for my children that they will take with them their whole lives.

Kristin Belsky, SBSD parent and foundation board member

Leslie had the foresight to make smart financial decisions while continuing to maintain a strong and dynamic curriculum for all students. Her willingness to reach out and connect with parents and volunteers fostered trust, motivation and inspiration within the community. I am so grateful for our amazing district!

Jocelyn Seamans, SBSD parent and foundation board member

Leslie always maintained an open, approachable communication style. I could send her an email or leave her a voicemail with a question and she always got back to me right away with a thoughtful answer. I knew how busy her schedule was, yet she always made the time to meet with me and talk. Leslie had a wonderful way of always making you feel appreciated and valued — you can ask any of the parent volunteers that have worked with Leslie, I am sure they would agree. I think that this is one of Leslie’s strongest characteristics: there was always a sense of “working together” to achieve a greater purpose. She expected it from you and you could expect the same from her. There was always a sense of respect and appreciation on both sides: Leslie’s appreciation for the work you did as a parent volunteer and your appreciation for the work she did as our superintendent.

Leslie strongly upheld the mantra of putting the educational needs and well-being of our children first. I think she approached much of her decision-making with our children in mind. If you visit the district office, the hallways and conference rooms, including Leslie’s office, have student created artwork on display all year round. These pieces of art were from the schools in our district and chosen by Leslie. The artwork is a constant reminder of the young students that the Solana Beach School District serves to educate. What an impact and contribution this has been!

I will definitely miss her leadership. Leslie was our school’s greatest fan and her support of the Solana Beach Foundation for Learning has been invaluable. Thank you, thank you, Leslie!


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