Meet Darshana Patel of Poway Unified School District

This article originally appeared in SD Voyager on June 28, 2018

Today we’d like to introduce you to Darshana Patel.

Darshana, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I am a believer in the effort. As a first-generation American, I quickly learned that success comes primarily from the effort, coupled with ability and planning. Consistently, it has been a combination of these three qualities that helped me achieve my goals, even during very challenging times.

I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1974; the only daughter of Urmila and Ramesh Patel. At an early age, my elder siblings taught me how to be tough and face challenges head-on. My mother would remind me regularly, that because I was an American, I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as I put in the effort. Although she passed away when I was 14 years old, her encouragement continues to inspire me to this day.

As a young adult, I knew I wanted to make a difference by pursuing a career path where I could create disease-curing therapeutics. I received scholarships and grants to attend Occidental College where I majored in Biochemistry and minored in Religious Studies. During my time at Oxy, I decided to study abroad for a year in order to gain some international experience. Since I was a science major, my options were limited and I chose the University of Sussex in England.

After graduation, I completed an internship with Monsanto and an intramural training award at the National Institutes of Health. These corporate and government research experiences confirmed my interest to take my education further. I was awarded my Ph.D. in Biophysics by the University of California, Irvine in 2002. I joined the Department of Protein Engineering at Genentech, Inc., as a postdoc and later took on a role as Project Manager in the Department of Translational Oncology managing therapeutics moving from research into development. By the time I left the biotech industry, I had eight years of professional experience.

Also by that time, I was married and had three curious and active daughters. Managing a healthy work-life balance became difficult in the Bay Area, so we moved to San Diego in 2010. After deep introspection and a conscious decision to shift our family priorities, I made the choice to focus on raising my family and putting roots into my community.

My education and professional experiences gave me a unique breadth and depth of knowledge and skills that I am using in public service. Since moving to Rancho Peñasquitos, I have served on:
• The Rancho Peñasquitos Planning Board (current member of the Land Use Committee)
• SDPD Police Captain’s Advisory Board – Northeastern Division
• Park Village Elementary School Foundation – currently Advisor, formerly Executive VP, Science and Technology Director
• The Rancho Peñasquitos Town Council (served as President, and Chairs of Education, Web&Print, Fiesta and Safety Committees)
• Park Village Elementary School PTA – served as VP Legislation, Reflections Chair
• Poway Unified School District Advisory Committee, School Site Council

In 2016, I decided to run for public office to be a Trustee on Poway Unified School District Board of Education. I value the servant leader model whereby I can use my collaborative problem-solving skills to serve the best interests of my community. This message resonated with the voters and I was the top vote-getter out of nine candidates in the race. Currently, I am the Vice-President of the PUSD Board of Education. I continue to serve as an elected member of the Rancho Peñasquitos Planning Board and on the SDPD Police Captain’s Advisory Board.

I am able to provide unique insight and perspective in decision-making because of my leadership in three important areas of our community – public education, safety and community planning.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
While I try to stay focused on all the good work going on in the school district, there have been areas of particular challenge. Some of the challenges can be systematically overcome, like learning how school district budgets work (very different from the private sector), reviewing student discipline cases or even attempting to attend events at our 39 schools without negatively impacting my own family. There is one specific challenge that I am still learning to work through, which is balancing the needs of all key stakeholders in our school community and being able to effectively communicate the rationale behind our Governance Team decisions.

The school district is well established with many long-time employees and multi-generational families attending our schools throughout the decades. This longevity has resulted in intentional and some unintentional traditions or perceptions. With the hiring of our new Superintendent, Dr. Marian Kim Phelps, there will be a systematic review of the established processes to determine where there are needs for improvement or alignment with current educational best practices. Adjusting to these changes can be difficult for those steeped in some of those unintentional traditions.

Similarly, with the Rancho Peñasquitos Planning Board, we are struggling with balancing the community’s clashing needs for increased housing with the desire to maintain a suburban quality of life. While new development can mean affordable housing for our community’s first responders, service providers and educators, it also means that there could be less open space and more traffic. Our community planning process has some inherent contradictions that complicate decision-making. Once again, the challenge is in effectively communicating the board’s rationale to all stakeholders in the community.

Thankfully, my disposition and outlook for success are optimistic. We have a strong community and I know we will work through these challenges together.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Poway Unified School District – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
At Poway Unified School District (PUSD), our mission is college and career readiness for all. PUSD is regarded as a national leader in public education serving as a gateway to our students’ future. The community holds high expectations for our students and PUSD provides strong core programs, multiple focus pathways, and fosters the necessary habits of mind, behaviors and attitudes essential for their future success. Staff and parents work cooperatively to support the mission.

Also, we have engaged the local business and higher education communities through our Career Technical Education programs, PUSD Foundation and all of the individual enrichment programs at each of our schools. The school district is about 100 square miles and has 24 schools in the City of San Diego, 11 in Poway and three in unincorporated San Diego County, plus an alternative programs school and 25 preschools. It is the third largest school district in the county with over 36,500 students in K-12 public education and a 2018-2019 budget of just over $390 million.

The elected Governing Board of Education’s primary responsibility is to ensure that PUSD is responsive to our community values, beliefs and priorities.

The Boards fulfills this role by keeping focused on its five major responsibilities:
• Setting direction though official policies
• Establishing an effective and efficient structure
• Providing support to the district
• Ensuring accountability
• Providing community leadership as advocates for children, the school district and public schools.

PUSD is working to strengthen community trust that was eroded due to high-level mismanagement under the previous Superintendent. I was elected to ensure that we continue the journey of rebuilding trust and accountability within the community. One of my first significant decisions upon being elected to the Board of Education was to hire a new Superintendent. Dr. Marian Kim Phelps rose to the top of the candidate list based on her strong instructional experience and her ability to take the district forward.

Additionally, the Governance Team has reduced the structural deficit and managed to finalize staff labor contracts with modest salary increases – a task that has not been done in three years. These immediate successes will be followed by ongoing improvements to student safety and wellness, the introduction of additional world language programs and increased support for career technical education programs, to name a few. The Board of Education hired Dr. Phelps because she is the right leader to carry out our Mission of college and career readiness for all students.

While I work hard to provide leadership in all of the five responsibilities outlined above, the role as an advocate for children and public education is the one that brings me greatest joy. Whenever decision making on the board gets challenging, all it takes is a visit to a school site and conversation with students or staff to refuel my energy to address the next challenge. My advocacy for students extends beyond the classroom.

I have the advantage of comfortably networking in many policy-making circles and had no hesitation to attend the California School Board Associations Legislative Action Day in Sacramento. We met with all four state elected officials that represent residents within the PUSD boundaries. We lobbied for full and fair funding, changes to special education funding, release of school facilities bond dollars and intervention for the state pension crisis.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I plan to continue my journey on the servant leader road and learn how I can best represent my community. Each year brings new opportunity for growth, collaboration and success. I love my community and hope that I can continue to serve for years to come.

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