Dr. Debbra Lindo: Reflections on a 40-year career in public education
Aloha! At Performance Fact, we enjoy the tremendous privilege of interacting with and learning from an abundance of courageous, innovative, tireless educators. Among them has been Dr. Debbra Lindo, retired superintendent of the Emery Unified School District, with whom I first collaborated in 2001.
I’ve long admired Debbra’s tenacity and dedication, and the joy and passion she brings to her calling. I’ve also seen how, when the real world has presented her with contradictions and painful nuances, Debbra has summoned the resilience to manage those difficulties.
This month, she has graciously allowed us to devote this space to her reflections on some of what four decades in public education has taught her. I trust that you, faithful readers, will find her story as compelling as I have! As always, we invite you to offer any comments or ideas that Debbra’s sharing stimulates in you.
— Mutiu O. Fagbayi
The impressionable years
Dr. Debbra Lindo was raised on hard work and service. The child of a Navy cook and an early “women’s libber,” Lindo came of age in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960s.
But an extended visit to family on Long Island, where she witnessed violent riots and learned about race relations at the knee of her uncle, a civil rights advocate, inspired her to make her mark on the world.
Lindo had been blessed with teachers who held students to high standards and who continually sought creative ways to engage kids. But she also saw injustice, as students were separated into “college prep” and “lower tier,” with the latter given weaker assignments.
Life as a teacher: A ‘warm demander’
Throughout Lindo’s 17-year teaching career, she became known as a “warm demander”: strict and observant but always respectful of students. “The kids loved me,” she recalls, “and the depth of learning was high.”
As the only African-American teacher at a mostly white school in northern California’s San Ramon, Lindo enjoyed the latitude to be innovative. Rather than reserve Shakespeare for the “college prep” students, she challenged the “lower tier” kids to dissect the same Othello soliloquies — and was rewarded with outstanding work.
She also encouraged her students to spend the first 15 minutes of every class journaling about a news item or quote she provided. “Kids ran to my class every day,” she recalls.
Entrée into administration
On the encouragement of her principal, the first female leader with whom Lindo worked, she took the multiple steps necessary to become an administrator.
As an assistant principal at San Ramon, a high-performing district, Lindo felt nurtured from above and below. “(Having) people I could ask for help (made the) ‘grunt jobs’ fun” — supervising athletic events, overseeing maintenance and renewing city contracts, Lindo says. She appreciated how strong systems — complete with habits, rituals and routines — supported teachers, staff and students to do their jobs well.
Again with her superior’s encouragement, Lindo applied for a principal opening at San Ramon. But despite performing well in the interviews, Lindo was turned down — and was particularly disappointed when the new superintendent’s team suggested she get experience in an “urban context.”
A silver lining
Lindo took a lateral move in 1994, becoming assistant principal in the “urban context” of high-functioning San Mateo High School. She coordinated campus life activities, developed course outlines, and led guidance counselors and the student services committee.
A strong performance led to Lindo’s appointment as director of human relations, attendance and welfare at San Mateo.
“I learned about accountability, racial disparities and how support systems matter for students. I learned about listening to the community and making public presentations.” She was particularly proud of San Mateo’s exemplary programs for English Language Learner (ELL) populations.
She began to appreciate how her unexpected detour to San Mateo “paved the way for me to become so much more. … The Divine was ordering my steps in ways that I had never even imagined,” Lindo reflects. “I realized that I was being prepared (to become a principal) — a task that the team at San Ramon had not been willing or able to take on.”
Journey into school administration: Steeper challenges
When Lindo finally landed that coveted principal position, it came with a daunting assignment: to bring order out of chaos at Carlmont High School in the Sequoia district. The subject of the Michelle Pfeiffer movie, “Dangerous Minds,” Carlmont was located in affluent Belmont. The recent shutdown of East Palo Alto High School, 17 miles away, had forced Carlmont to integrate a sudden influx of African-American and Latino students. With space and resources limited, racial tensions and riots flared.
“I witnessed kids throwing rocks and stones at buses,” Lindo recalls. “News reporters were shoving microphones in my face.”
She drew on every bit of her experience and creativity to bring the school together. Lindo worked hard to level the playing field and establish high expectations while reaching out to parents in six different communities.
But an act of God provided a big break. Heavy rains in 1998 flooded East Palo Alto, stranding a third of the Carlmont student population far from Belmont. Some were living in Red Cross shelters.
Lindo persuaded the superintendent to transport 10 busloads of mostly white Carlmont students to East Palo Alto to help clean up. “These were kids who’d never seen East Palo Alto and hated the African-American kids who lived there,” Lindo says. Some were afraid or reluctant, but she appealed to their courage and duty to serve.
Under Red Cross guidance, the students pulled wet carpet and furniture out of houses, swept out storefronts and picked up glass. “These kids — black and white, Latino, all of them together — it was a spectacle,” she recalls.
“It was an ‘aha’ for the kids on both sides,” Lindo says. “After that, we had no more riots at Carlmont.”
Her mother’s illness and death led Lindo to step outside of public education in 1999 to develop a training division for ViaNovus, a software startup in Oakland.
“I was working alongside … engineers and data programmers (who worked until midnight), insisting on being specific and getting it right for the end user,” she recalls. “I learned how to track data and accountability for results, budget, streamline things, and be generative and creative.” She developed the skill to recognize when a process wasn’t working and to “pivot for the benefit of the end user.”
She reflected on how colleagues in education sometimes lacked that commitment to serving the end user, the student.
When the Oakland Unified School District embarked on a massive reform effort, Lindo was drawn back into school administration in 2001. At Castlemont High School, “kids were being lost all the time,” with fewer than 20 percent graduating. Lindo was charged with dismantling Castlemont and designing three smaller schools to take its place — new schools with supportive systems that ensured high rigor for all students. She later parlayed that work as director for the Middle School Network, dismantling more schools and designing and opening replacements.
Lindo worked alongside several consultants, including Performance Fact, Inc., which had helped develop strategic plans in Oakland. Mutiu Fagbayi ensured workflow and articulated milestones that were “simple, precise and clean,” she says. “We had no doubt about our guiding principles, our core values: high expectations, focus on kids, respect for one another.”
Performance Fact offered simple, quick observation tools and a structure and language for talking about data and benchmark assessments.
Armed with an appreciation for the precision, systems thinking and end-user focus she’d experienced at ViaNovus, Lindo embraced Fagbayi’s emphasis on “separating the operational conversations from the teaching and learning conversations” — distinct conversations that require distinct skill sets, even different people.
With Mutiu “sitting on (my) shoulder like a guardian angel,” Lindo was able to provide time and space for both kinds of conversations.
Performance Fact also taught Lindo and her colleagues to conduct cycles of continuous improvement — engaging in daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly reflections.
Fitting it all together
Several other career experiences would advance Lindo’s growth. Eventually, as superintendent of the Emery Unified School District, she learned to embrace governance of the entire system. She drew on the insights, skills and experience gleaned over her long career to collaborate with the school board and teachers unions. Finding the courage and wisdom to make priorities, to make budget cuts, to tell people “no,” to push forward unpopular recommendations — all were essential.
“You always have to think about the big picture and how one piece affected the other,” she recalls.
Again, Performance Fact was an important partner, assisting Lindo’s governance team, executive team and school board.
“We functioned at a much higher level,” she says, “looking at all the data, setting up our ‘businesses’ with plans in place and using monitoring and communication tools such as Performance Fact’s CPR Card™. … Our reflections informed our strategies and our tactics.”
Integrity and honesty
While numerous mentors and systems helped shape Lindo’s career, she highlights some of the benefits of working with Performance Fact.
“The high integrity and consistency that Mutiu and his team demonstrated (in Oakland) gave us the strength to achieve those standards ourselves,” she says.
She especially values the importance of being brutally honest, particularly with “people who had been holding things together with duct tape and glue.”
Without that honesty, she says, the passion to embark on major changes might never surface.
“When Mutiu helped us face the brutal fact (that Castlemont was one of the lowest-performing high schools in California), we started using data and engaging stakeholders in key ways with high integrity and honesty. … (Taking these approaches) made a huge difference. My assistant principals and department chairs learned how to get into classrooms and provide quality feedback to teachers, and we started getting results with kids.”
Coming full circle
The ups and downs, the successes and seeming disappointments, the clarity and the contradictions — all are hallmarks of a life lived in the real world by an outstanding, passionate educator. Through it all, Lindo’s true north never changed: For her, it was always about getting results for kids.
What does Debbra’s story bring to mind for you? How have detours and disappointments shaped your growth as an educator?