José Banda, superintendent of the Anaheim City School District and one of three finalists for the superintendency in Seattle, arrived in Seattle on Monday for two days of interviews and visits to schools.

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When José Banda came to the Anaheim City School District four years ago, it was struggling on several fronts.

Overcrowding meant some students were on a year-round school schedule, a situation that was tough on everybody. Parent involvement was lacking. Test scores weren’t meeting benchmarks. And, because revenues were declining, the staff would have to shrink.

Banda, 55, seems to have worked through those challenges admirably, stakeholders say.

“His calm demeanor has brought us to consensus so often, in so many issues,” said Sandy Blumberg, an Anaheim School Board member. “He’s not a polarizing kind of individual.”

Nor is he a flashy one — or one who’s been put to the test on a big stage, under an intense spotlight.

Banda, one of three finalists for Seattle schools superintendent, spent a grueling day here Monday, arriving for an intense two days of interviews and visits to local schools. His main hurdle will be convincing a selection committee that his experience in Anaheim, with an entirely different sort of student body, would translate into effective leadership in Seattle.

In Anaheim, where the vast majority of students are Latino, the single biggest challenge is the high percentage of those classified as English Language Learners. Seattle’s issues, by contrast, center on an achievement gap between students from comparatively wealthy homes and poor ones. Because many wealthy students are in the northern part of the city and poor ones in the south, the district often struggles with geographic politics.

Stability is another issue for Seattle, which has gone through four superintendents in less than 10 years. Most recently, popular interim chief Susan Enfield announced she would leave in June. On Monday, her top deputy announced that he, too, is moving on, effective May 21.

Enfield was appointed a little more than a year ago to fill the seat of her predecessor, who was fired after a district financial scandal.

For Banda, there is also a question of scale. The Seattle district is more than twice as large as Anaheim’s.

Banda doesn’t seem concerned.

“I think leadership skills and success transcend the size of the district,” he said. “I feel (Seattle is) a perfect fit for what we’ve been doing (in Anaheim).”

Son of migrants

Banda was born in Texas, the son of migrant farmworkers who had little formal education. His first language was Spanish.

When he was 2, the family moved to California, where he has stayed. His father began picking cotton at a ranch outside Bakersfield and eventually was promoted to supervisor. During breaks and summers, Banda and his six siblings worked in the fields, too.

“We really learned the hard work ethic,” he said.

His parents also taught him the value of education.

“My opportunities came from having caring teachers,” he said.

Yet it was chance that led him to a 30-year career in education. He needed a job to help pay for college, so he signed up for a program that put bilingual students in the classroom, with the aim of readying them for teaching jobs. Before that, his plan was to be a social worker.

“Once I started working with children,” he said, “I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

He’s gone from teacher to principal to superintendent.

Very different district

With 20,000 students, the Anaheim school district is entirely different from Seattle’s. Anaheim serves only elementary students. It’s an urban district, with many parents working in the service industry for Disneyland and the surrounding hotels. Some 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — twice as many as in Seattle.

Eighty-six percent of students are Latino, and about 60 percent are English Language Learners. That, Banda said, has given rise to the district’s biggest challenges, and has been the object of much of his attention.

Before he arrived, Anaheim’s student-achievement scores fell well below the benchmark set by the state. Banda decided the district needed to focus on standards — the basic requirements for what every student should know.

Under Banda, test scores have increased from less than 700 to nearly 800, which puts the districtwide average just short of the state’s benchmark. A number of schools in the district have surpassed the standard, despite the district’s shrinking budget.

“What we’ve been doing is making sure our resources are focused,” he said.

Stakeholders say Banda has instilled in staff the belief that all students can succeed, no matter their background, said Jim Elsasser, assistant superintendent.

Banda also has encouraged parents to become more engaged, in part by offering an eight-week course on how best to advocate for their children. More than 1,500 parents have gone through the program, designed by the Parent Institute for Quality Education.

The effort has led to more vocal parents. Before Banda arrived, School Board member Blumberg said, “At times I felt the district office had this big old bubble around it. The community didn’t come in, stakeholders didn’t come in.”

Now, they do. And sometimes, they complain.

Banda has made it clear he’s willing to listen. Last year, for example, scores of parents asked to expand a small Spanish/English immersion program.

“We as a board would probably have said there was no way,” Blumberg said, noting budget constraints. “But he found a way.” Mostly it was by juggling teachers and principals at key schools.

The president of the teachers union declined to comment for this story, but other employee groups say Banda has listened to them. Kathy Heard, president of the district’s classified employees union, noted that while their latest contract required furloughs, he earned points by talking about concerns face to face.

“I think his crowning glory is his ability to bring people together and work on a common goal,” Heard said. “It’s not just the teachers, the administration, it’s all of us working together to make a better district.”

“He’s a motivator,” Elsasser echoed. “It’s never about José Banda. It’s about the team.”

Going to the voters

With more students than seats, Anaheim for years has been forced to do some creative scheduling.

At some schools, students attend on a staggered schedule, year-round, a reality that’s trying for children, parents and teachers. The only solution was to build more schools and modernize existing ones. A 2002 bond measure helped, but wasn’t enough.

A 2010 bond measure was drafted, though in conservative Orange County, where Anaheim is located, any proposal that would increase taxes is a tough sell.

Mariellen Sereno, who was chair of the 2010 campaign, said she and Banda met with community leaders both for and against the measure and he handled the meetings well.

The measure managed to win the support of Disney, the biggest property owner in town, and passed. Only a few remaining schools remain on multitrack schedules. “It’s been pretty significant,” Sereno said.

One thing Banda hasn’t experienced much is outside attention. The local paper, The Orange County Register, barely has covered the district. The district’s PTA supports him, and he’s avoided big battles with the teachers union.

But the scene is different in Seattle. The superintendency is a high-profile position, with many interest groups bringing a great deal of scrutiny.

Banda doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal. “I see Seattle as a much larger version of Anaheim,” he said.

As much as anything, he says, he’s always been adaptable.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562


News researcher David Turim contributed to this report.