Laura Rich, whose son Tyler was a new student at the elementary school, recently recalled her reaction to the unexpected sight: "I was horrified." But what could be done when the school district's budgetary priorities centered on educational programs, not cosmetic enhancement of its schools?
"I had just worked on a Christmas in April project, and thought, maybe we could get (that group) involved to help us," she said in an interview with the Almanac, referring to the organization, now called Rebuilding Together, that organizes volunteers to help nonprofits and low-income people repair and renovate homes and properties.
As unlikely as the prospect was that a school in affluent Atherton would register on the radar of a group focused on those in need, the organization took on the project after inspecting the school and finding conditions, including sidewalks and other outdoor areas, that rivaled those of the low-wealth neighboring Ravenswood school district, Ms. Rich said, adding, "It looked like a prison yard."
That was Ms. Rich's first foray into the demanding world of school volunteerism — an experience, she said, that revealed to her that most parents believed nothing could be done about problems they saw at their kids' schools, but whose success revealed the opposite.
"Before that, the school couldn't get volunteers," she said. After the campus spruce-up that required 200 parent volunteers to join the 200 volunteers from Menlo Park-based Raychem, "the commitment at the school surged," she said. And, she added, "it started the path (of volunteerism) for me."
That path led to leadership roles on the school's PTA, then a successful run for the Menlo Park City School District board in 1998. Ms. Rich last month ended her tenure on that board after 15 years, making her the longest-serving board member ever, according to district records.
During those years, she worked with three different superintendents and a number of two- and three-term board colleagues with whom she pored over dense budgets, studied and tweaked campus renovation plans, approved curriculum changes, presided over personnel matters, and hammered out countless policy changes to manage the four-school district that serves kids in Menlo Park and Atherton.
She also took on a rather untraditional role for a school board member: "I was basically the communications department" for many years, she said. She put on that hat while still PTA president at Encinal, after observing the amount of time office staff spent on the phone answering basic questions.
She jumped in to create a website for Encinal, and once she was on the board, the project grew to include all schools, the district, and the school foundation.
In addition to those roles, Ms. Rich took on broader challenges on behalf of education, becoming a member, then president, of the San Mateo County School Boards Association; and serving as a director for the California School Boards Association.
"One of Laura's great strengths over the years has been her willingness to be involved not only in Menlo Park, but also at the county and state level," said Anne Campbell, the county's superintendent of schools. "The past 10 years have been turbulent ones for schools, and Laura has been a forceful presence in numerous Sacramento high-level discussions, speaking up and advocating for local schools."
In that role, Ms. Rich has had the opportunity to observe how other school districts and their boards operate. "One of the things that makes Menlo Park different is that the board is not afraid to innovate — to try something different," she said.
Examples of innovation include a program that "excites me every year," — the annual Jeannie Ritchie Grant program that, with funds from the school foundation, "encourages teacher-designed, innovative programs that have led to some fabulous experiences for children over the years."
The district in recent years has also established a Spanish immersion program, and has launched a series of new, in some cases pioneering programs at Hillview Middle School. Ms. Rich said she also is excited about new approaches adopted by the district for its professional development programs.
Educators who have an aversion to trying new things, to taking risks, "are bad role models for a child," she said. Exploring new approaches to education to keep up in a fast-changing world "inspires kids to be life-long learners," she said. "The world is too big and interesting to stop learning."
Ms. Rich lives by those words, which is one reason her retirement from the board won't ensure much leisure time. She has taken a number of courses from the Stanford Continuing Studies program, including Mandarin.
When the district was exploring a language immersion program, she explained, she saw Mandarin as a good option. "There were some comments that Mandarin was too difficult to learn. I decided to see if that was true. ... (and) studied it for a year and a half at Stanford."
Her interest expanded to Chinese art, and after enrolling in Patrick Hunt's class on Chinese art and archaeology, she was hooked. She has studied with him now for four years, she said, and plans to participate in his field study this summer.
Ms. Rich's resignation came 11 months before her fourth term was to end; she cited family commitments that required her to travel. In addition to those commitments, she will also be able to spend more time with her husband, Mark Rich, who travels often in his job. As a member of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, he's part of an elite team that has changed the world with technological breakthroughs leading to development of, among other things, the Internet.
In some ways, the role her husband plays through his work is not much different from her work in education, she said. "We are both challenged to be innovative within a government bureaucracy. "
Referring to educational leaders, she noted: "In our own way, by educating children, we're changing the world. We have to look at every single child as the person who may change the world — or maybe a corner of their world. But we're laying the foundation."