New face in Las Lomitas superintendent's office | July 31, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Schools - July 31, 2019

New face in Las Lomitas superintendent's office

Beth Polito interested in bringing design thinking, social and emotion learning to district schools

by Angela Swartz

After eight years as the superintendent of the Woodside Elementary School District, Beth Polito is eager to get her feet wet as the head of the neighboring Las Lomitas School District.

Polito, a San Jose resident, began work in her new role on July 1, and already has her sights set on specific goals. She wants to bring ideas that worked in the Woodside district — project-based learning and social and emotional learning (SEL) initiatives — to Las Lomitas.

"Eight years is a really long time to stay in one place as an administrator," she said in a sit-down interview with The Almanac. "I felt I accomplished what I set out to accomplish. It (Las Lomitas) was sold as a great opportunity with wonderful staff."

During the 2019-20 school year, Polito, 50, hopes to put together a strategic plan for the district, including exploring how to integrate "design thinking" strategies into classroom curriculum, an emphasis of the neighboring Menlo Park City School District. Design thinking often goes along with project-based learning, in which students develop skills in a range of subject areas as they study a chosen question, problem or subject.

"It's (design thinking) really a mindset shift," she said. "There's all sorts of young people taking an environmental banner and running with it."

These students are using outside-the-box thinking and prototyping to find solutions to problems, she said. For example, former Woodside district student Georgia Hutchinson used the strategies to build a system that allows solar panels to follow the sun for maximum energy production. Hutchinson won a $25,000 prize at the Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars) national science and engineering competition for the project.

In Woodside's SEL program, educators teach students to assert their feelings directly, be mindful, make decisions, work well in groups and be self-aware, among other skills. These skills prepare students to be curious, enthusiastic and self-motivated learners who succeed in school and life, according to the district website. Woodside district staff members have participated in the Institute for SEL, an intensive summer workshop; this has allowed the district to create an in-house committee of expert teachers, according to the website.

Incorporating more SEL programming into the Las Lomitas district will likely be part of a strategic planning process. The district will pursue expanding this program only if the community is interested in doing so, she said.

"A comprehensive SEL program that builds from K through 8th is very helpful as the language and key [tenets] are the same and students internalize the program more consistently and deeply with this congruous approach," she said in a follow-up email. "After seven years of consistent implementation Woodside students were able to consistently speak to the skills learned, vocabulary mastered and intelligently discuss how they implemented what was learned across all grades."

Polito also hopes to work on the district's communications with the public. At Woodside, Polito overhauled the district's communications strategy, with a new website and editorial guidelines for who would create and handle press releases or weekly e-bulletins, she said. This will also be part of her strategic planning process, she said.

"The absence of information can cause significant frustration," she said. "It's better to over-communicate."

Polito is happy to continue working with students in San Mateo County, who tend to be "friendly, confident and eager to connect," she said.

Polito replaces Lisa Cesario, who announced her retirement in February after seven years as superintendent.

Polito, who holds a doctorate degree in education from the University of San Francisco, served as assistant superintendent of the Saratoga Union School District for four years before coming to the Woodside district. Prior to that, she was a teacher, dean of students, vice principal, and principal at Redwood Middle School in Saratoga for 14 years.

Polito's three-year contract includes a salary of $279,000 annually, according to the district. This is a pay bump of $50,226 from her previous role in Woodside (she earned an annual $228,774 as Woodside's superintendent, according to the Woodside district).