What Would Roger Do?

When I first ran for the school board in Rancho Santa Fe, I knew very little about Dr. R. Roger Rowe, the man for whom the school is named. He seemed to be almost a mythical figure. In time, I learned about his unwavering belief in the importance of education, the high standards he set for students as well as staff, and the unique way he would discipline a rebellious student with a trip to his office, a serious chat, and maybe some ice cream. What he did, worked. 

In December of 2020, three new members took the oath to serve. We were eager to make changes. After one meeting, I recall a fellow board member touching the picture of Dr. Rowe, promising the photo we would get the job done. What was the task? To bring back the magic of R. Roger Rowe. A comment that I heard frequently from parents and community members during that election, was that something was missing, and maybe everything was missing. We were determined to recapture the glory days of when we were No. 1 in the county.

Unprecedented chaos 

School board members are elected officials entrusted to “ensure the school district is responsive to the values, beliefs, and priorities of the community.” That quote is taken directly from the California School Boards Association (CSBA) website, but the mandates that continue to come down from Sacramento have changed the game. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who grew up here and went to school when Dr. Rowe was the superintendent. I shared with him that my mission to “make things the way they were” was starting to frustrate me. He said, if Dr. Rowe was the superintendent today, it would not be the same because the state of California is not the same; In many ways, we are not in charge of our little school. We live in different times. The iPhone, social media platforms, and the endless technological breakthroughs have catapulted us into unprecedented chaos. People feel disoriented. What do we do?

We talk a lot about “community” at school. It is a concept often discussed in past tense. It is what “used to be,” like some fossilized memory of yesteryear when people would ride to school on horseback. Studies everywhere show that while we are connected like never before, we are utterly adrift from one another. Some parents’ response is to request that the school integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) with the hope that we can teach strategies to quell the anxieties of our younger generation. The data about the loneliness and isolation felt by students is daunting, frightening, and compelling. It is definitely a call to action. 

More questions than answers 

As a mother of five daughters, I believed it was my duty to instill values and self discipline in our girls, so it was new for me to think of teachers using curriculum to teach these topics. I am open to the idea, but it is still something I am unsure about, and I will explain why. A couple of years ago I received a call from a newspaper in Sacramento. The journalist asked me why I thought parents knew better for their children than the state of California. I was speechless. After a moment I said, “I am stunned by your question and pretty concerned about where things might be headed.”

Education is changing rapidly. Currently, I am left with more questions than answers: What are we teaching our young people? Are reading, writing, and arithmetic subjects of the past? Do we have a need for history? If you ask a college-age student about the principles of our nation, they make it sound as if the Founding Fathers had a bad idea. What do we expect our parents to teach? Should the values of the community still shape the public schools? Will they be allowed to do so? 

Inspiration and hope 

My daughters make sure to remind me that I am a dinosaur and therefore understand little about their world. However, when they talk to me about their educational experience, I know that my current opinions have little to do with me not being hip enough, but perhaps are more wary of fads that end up being failures. I too was once a young adult like my girls, so I may have viewed what I now consider academic weaknesses, possibly as strengths. They have helped me grow into my role by seeing the shortfalls in their education, but also the promise of what we can still achieve.

It is an honor to serve on the school board. I have had the opportunity to learn and to listen. The conversations I have had over the past four years have been a privilege. And on the tough days when people are upset, and the task feels like that of Sisyphus, I never have to look any further than the students for inspiration. They fill my heart with absolute hope. Their openness and natural curiosity is why parents share concerns with me about what we are teaching them, and what we are not teaching them. 

Real conversations 

We have an awesome responsibility, so let’s not teach them to fear, or singularly focus on the ways we are different. Let’s recommit to education and teach them to think for themselves, not train them to let others think for them. They are truly entering a brave new world. It is our duty to guide them.  

As a single school district set in the heart of this beloved town, we are well poised to give our children the best chance to succeed. But it will take real conversations — the kind we sometimes shy away from or get angry about. The question is: Will our school become a state-run school, or will we persevere in holding onto our values and traditions? 

The past is not forgotten, and I sincerely hope that Dr. Rowe’s legacy will be a part of what we become. 

Annette Ross is a Ranch resident and the current R. Roger Rowe School Board President. 

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