San Diego chooses longtime educator to lead school district
Lamont Jackson, who has been the interim leader, has been a student, teacher, principal, HR chief and area superintendent in San Diego Unified
Lamont Jackson, a San Diego Unified alumnus and educator known for his personable nature and long track record with the district, was chosen as San Diego Unified’s new permanent superintendent, the school board announced Monday afternoon.
The board voted unanimously to select Jackson, who has been serving as the district’s interim superintendent since last May, after conducting a superintendent search that spanned more than a year.
Jackson, 52, will lead California’s second-largest school district of 95,000 students, 15,000 employees, more than 170 schools and a $1.7 billion budget.
At a press conference Monday, Jackson said he is “truly humbled and honored” to be in this position but said he is not the star of the show.
“This is not about one person. This is not about the superintendent. This is about us as a collective group,” Jackson said.
Many major challenges await Jackson, including developing game plans for closing achievement gaps and ensuring equity for disadvantaged students, helping students recover from the academic and mental health toll of the pandemic, implementing the district’s student COVID-19 vaccine mandate next school year and adjusting to declining enrollment which was accelerated by COVID.
“This is going to take hard work,” Jackson said. “Certainly we need to tell the story and celebrate, but we need to illuminate what we’re not doing well.”
Jackson was chosen from an undisclosed number of people who applied for the superintendent position. The only other superintendent finalist was Susan Enfield, an award-winning superintendent from a Seattle-area school district about one-fifth the size of San Diego Unified.
Both Enfield and Jackson voiced similar ideas and values about education equity throughout the search process. But the fact that many in the San Diego Unified community already know and trust Jackson, who has worked in the district for 34 years, was a major reason the board chose him, said School Board Trustee Richard Barrera.
“If we’ve got someone of Lamont’s caliber who also is from our community, that’s kind of the defining choice for us,” Barrera said. “He understands this community and he’s committed to this community. We know him and we’ve seen him in action.”
The choice of Jackson, a district insider, matches with the school board’s prior pattern in that its last superintendent, Cindy Marten, had worked in San Diego Unified for 10 years as a principal and 17 years as a teacher before the board appointed her in 2013.
In May last year she left the district to become deputy U.S. education secretary in the Biden administration.
Jackson grew up in southeast San Diego and attended several San Diego Unified schools: Emerson/Bandini Elementary, Longfellow Elementary, Marston Middle and then Clairemont High. Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and social sciences from San Diego State University and a master’s and doctorate in educational leadership from the University of San Diego.
He was recruited to become a teacher through a previous district program that aimed to diversify the teaching workforce.
Jackson started as a teaching assistant and head women’s basketball coach at Clairemont High, where he helped create a program to support historically disadvantaged students. He later became a teacher, then served as principal at three schools: Montgomery, Challenger and Wangenheim middle schools.
He became a human resources administrator, then human resources officer from 2010 to 2013, as the district dealt hundreds of layoffs to address budget deficits.
Afterward he served as an area superintendent, overseeing mostly elementary and middle schools in the Morse, Mira Mesa, Clairemont and University City high school clusters. Jackson was credited at the time with helping develop the district’s new teacher evaluation method, which was meant to focus on improvement rather than punishing teachers for poor performance.
Principals have said Jackson is charismatic, unafraid to show emotional vulnerability, and caring about students and staff. He remembers details about people’s lives, makes jokes, visits schools often, and has cried with fellow employees when having deep conversations, colleagues said.
“He’s the guy who goes up to a student and asks, ‘Are you okay?’ and if they say no, well, you betcha he’s gonna follow that student and make sure they’re doing okay,” said San Diego Unified Student Trustee Zachary Patterson. “Dr. Lamont Jackson is one of the best human beings I know because he chooses to listen and he chooses to care.”
Barrera said Jackson’s strength in listening and building bridges is key because the district’s biggest challenge right now is to improve communication, transparency and relationship-building among students, staff and families.
“We have to reach a new level of our ability to communicate with this entire San Diego community, to be honest, to be transparent, and to listen and to bring voices into the decision-making process that have for too long felt excluded,” Barrera said. “This is the time that we need a community-builder at the helm, and I have never seen a person who builds community as skillfully and as powerfully as Dr. Lamont Jackson.”
Jackson, who has shared openly his experiences as a Black man, often says the district “needs to be unapologetic” about equity and serving the district’s most marginalized students, particularly Black and Latino students, students with disabilities, and students who are learning English as a second language. On Monday Jackson said San Diego Unified will continue to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and on closing the achievement gap.
“When we can get it right for our students … who have been marginalized for far too long … then we can say that we are about equity,” he said in January. “But until then, it’s just talk. And we have to stay committed and be unapologetic about that.”
Jackson’s other ideas to improve the district include using a “grow-your-own” program to help district students become teachers, eliminating barriers such as course prerequisites that are preventing disadvantaged students from taking advanced or rigorous courses, and raising teacher pay.
Jackson also has said he will accelerate the district’s efforts to reform its grading practices, grow the district’s transitional kindergarten programs, and expand anti-bias and anti-racism training to more staff.