Sally Kingston, principal of Harding Elementary
Paul Wellman (file)

Just as Sally Kingston is about to reap the rewards of turning around a chronically underperforming Westide elementary school, she is walking away. On Thursday, Santa Barbara Unified announced that the principal of Harding University Partnership School is taking a new job in Carpinteria.

Kingston, who became the principal of Harding in 2005, made it a test tube of initiatives and programs that seems to have resulted in a winning solution. Among the new elements that Kingston instituted were the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years program, a partnership with UCSB, and pre-kindergarten classes as part of the Harding Early Years Program in collaboration with the nonprofit, Thrive.

The move is somewhat surprising considering that Kingston was on the cusp of achieving some of her long-sought goals. Although Harding’s Academic Performance Index score jumped a staggering 57 points last year, at 744 it still fell short of the 800 considered proficient by the state of California. Another similar increase will bring Harding out of the state-mandated purgatory of Program Improvement. Only two other South Coast schools have achieved that feat. Harding will also be officially authorized as an IB school later this year.

Kingston said she will come back for the visit from the IB accreditation committee and that she’s not leaving until this year’s testing is finished, but even she admits that she would have liked to stay a little longer, at least until the end of the year if not another one to three more years. Her new job begins in May. Retired Peabody principal Pat Morales will replace her on an interim basis for the final month of the school year.

“Of course every cell in my body wants the school to be as successful as possible. It’s not an easy decision emotionally,” she told The Santa Barbara Independent. But she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take the job of Director of College Bound Programs with Carpinteria Unified School District, a position funded by the nonprofit, Thrive.

Practically and professionally, the move made sense. Kingston was not sure she would get another opportunity to work at the district level and be able to keep her home in the area. She also felt that the position fit her varied skill set—as a researcher, fundraiser, educator, and organizer—perfectly. She didn’t want to be “an assistant superintendant of x, y, or z,” she said. “It’s a new adventure what the Thrive group is trying to do. I’m interested in innovating things. I think that is evident here [at Harding].”

Anita Perez Ferguson, executive director of Thrive, explained that Kingston will have three primary job duties: “interacting with school district personnel as students make the transition into upper grades and face the challenges that stop children from continuing their education (primarily English language learning, math skills, and college requirements); “helping coordinate with community groups that also give support to students and families like Girls, Inc. and CALM; and “coordinating work throughout the county where we have active Thrive initiatives.”

Kingston first brought Thrive — which operates in five locations throughout Santa Barbara County — to the Westside a couple years ago. It operates on the principle that a child’s entire educational experience should be integrated from beginning to end and oriented towards career goals. Thrive follows what is called a “collective impact model,” meaning that it attempts to bring together several organizations so that an educational institution is bolstered by the entire community. Harding offers a Family Strengths Center where parents receive coaching from UCSB doctoral students, a zero-waste cafeteria with the support of MarBorg, and growing collaborations with the secondary schools that most Westside children attend — La Cumbre Junior High and San Marcos High School.

Thrive began in Carpinteria by putting into place an Early Years Program. Kingston will be focusing on elementary, junior high, and high school students.

“Of course we like things to remain the same, especially when we have confidence in the leadership, but it helps give perspective when you see that it is all part of a continuum,” said Ferguson. She explained that Kingston will be working on the same project she initiated at Harding by creating a model that can spread throughout the county.

The lingering question is whether the transformation that has taken place at Harding is a byproduct of Kingston’s vision or if the school — long written off as an educational failure and a textbook example of white flight — has truly undergone structural changes.

Dr. Jane Conoley, dean of the Gevirtz School of Education at UCSB who has spearheaded the partnership with Harding, said, “I think she is a strong creative force. Though, in addition, she always tries to rally teacher leadership and teacher commitment. The teachers every year have become more in charge of its next step and its next directions. Teacher-led change is the type of change that will stick.”

Conoley will help choose Harding’s new principal and says that because Superintendant David Cash —with whom she is meeting on Tuesday to write a wish list of attributes for the new principal —supports the partnership, it will continue just as strong as ever.

Kingston said Harding’s students also worried that the life will change when their principal takes off, but that their concern is not necessary. “When I told the kids I was leaving, it was so hard. One kid raised his hand and asked if we will still go to UCSB every year,” referring to a field trip the students annually take to the university campus.” I think that is so great.”

Kingston also shrugs off the idea that she possesses some sort of unique organizational energy. “I think there is a real awareness that education is important for our whole society and that it’s the solution to so many problems. It’s been really easy. Whether it is [Mayor] Helene Schneider helping us with environmental sustainability or Jane Conoley with the partnership, everybody wants to work with the kids.”


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