2 Fil-Am moms elected to California school boards
MILPITAS, California – Among the Filipino-American winners in this month’s general elections were Thelma Boac, to the Berryessa Union School District Board, and Noelani Sallings to the Santa Clara School District.
Both are concerned moms who believe that everything starts with a solid foundation in education. Both are also the first Filipinos elected to their respective districts after a long while.
Boac follows Francisca Miranda after almost 20 years. She is a Philippine-born career educator while Sallings is a US-born PTA mom-turned advocate. Sallings is the first Filipino and the first Asian-American woman to be elected after almost 40 years in Santa Clara City and the youngest Fil-Am local official to be elected.
Boac left her birthplace of Tubigon, Bohol when she was 10. In 1960, she immigrated to live with her childless aunt and adoptive parent at a strawberry farm in Grover Beach (now part of Pismo Beach), California. On her fifth or sixth grade, the sight of sick people and her newfound ability to simplify things changed her career choice from nursing to teaching.
But the most radical change in Boac’s life was graduating from San Luis Obispo’s Catholic Old Mission School to enrolling at San Francisco State University (SFSU). This was in 1968 when anti-Vietnam War protests and civil rights movements made headlines. Additionally, the flower power revolution was at its height in places like Haight-Ashbury, in San Francisco, and in Berkeley.
In her senior year, she took advantage of the nationwide California International Program for state colleges and got accepted to study at the University of Granada in Andalucia, Spain. For a year, she stayed at the southern Spanish province near the Rock of Gibraltar.
She came back to SFSU with her courses at Granada fulfilling the requirements for her degrees in Spanish and music. Another year at SFSU got her a California teaching certificate for high school. She could teach Spanish, English, ESL and Social Studies. She also met her husband, Danilo, an engineering major in college.
They married in Pismo beach but settled in San Jose because Danilo was from Fremont and had a job at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale.
Boac taught at Sunnyvale High School (part of Fremont Union High School District), but after Proposition 13 passed (which gutted public funds for schools and public services), the school was shut down, and she was farmed out to the other schools in the district, like the other teachers. She was assigned to Homestead but got recruited by East Side Union School District.
She taught at Independence High School for 25 years, eventually becoming a villa principal. At that time, Independence was the largest high school in Northern California with more than 4,000 students being taught at houses or villas. Boac was one of five villa principals and was responsible for incoming ninth graders for six years.
Boac became a full principal at Silver Creek High School, but she had to go back to school at San Jose State University to pursue her administrative credentials while working full-time.
When she was at Independence, 18 percent of the student populace was Filipino. The rest of the other Asians and Hispanics made up 35 percent. East Side Union is not the most affluent district. There were the usual gang skirmishes and some truancy, normal for any large schools.
But Boac believed the main issue in the district was and still is the lack of funding. “There’s a disparity between the affluent and needy school districts. We need to have access to technology, that means money and funding has never been good. In the state of California, we’re at the bottom.”
Boac’s district is right at the heart of Silicon Valley, near Apple, eBay, Yahoo, Intel, Cisco and other tier 1 tech companies. She contributed this battlecry to Ro Khanna’s campaign: “We’re at the center of innovation in technology, the home of all these tech advancements in the world. We’re technology-rich and yet we’re technology-poor when it comes to our schools.”
She related her experience as a principal when she had to rely on small business owner and individual computer donations to the school’s computer labs. In the ‘90s, there were early-generation Macintoshes. These days, some public schools and public libraries depend on Google chromebooks because of the affordable price and the popular operating system.
Nevertheless, Boac complained that “getting technology is expensive. You have to have the right people present at all times to maintain it and you have to pay their salaries.” She said she intended to partner with any government official and business entity to access technology.
“After all, (the high-tech companies) want our children to compete in the twenty-first century job market. Many CEOs complain to the media that our children can’t compete globally. But if you give the access to technology, they can.”
Boac is fighting a pitched battle. “Technology moves so fast. By the time we get it, it becomes obsolete in six months. Then we’re back to square one. Many of our parents in our district don’t even have computers. The best way to get the upper hand is to give computers to the schools.”
Sallings’ mom met her US Navy dad in Zambales. “When my Mom came to the US, she didn’t speak any English. I think this made her decide not to teach me about Filipino culture. So, I didn’t know anything about my heritage.”
When Sallings got into Santa Clara University, she interviewed her mom for her Fil-Am Studies homework. “She told me why she didn’t teach me Filipino culture. Why it was important to her that I get acclimated to American culture. She related tales of ridicule and language barriers that kids like me would go through if she didn’t do what she did.”
Sallings was the first on her mother’s side to get a college degree. She finished BS Psychology in 2004 and took her master’s at Notre Dame De Namur in Belmont. She separated from her software engineer husband and now lives with two daughters. She has been involved in the leadership of non-profit organizations and in creating benefit school programs – many of them musical, a longtime passion.
Sallings was PTA officer at her daughter’s school, sat at committees and even worked for the school district. When the principal and others suggested that she run, she realized she didn’t know what it was like to run a school board.
With characteristic determination, she took about half a year to arm herself. She enrolled at Emerge California in San Francisco. Some call it the Democrat boot camp cum finishing school in these parts. This, plus her campaign work for then Assembly candidate Paul Fong (the local “godfather of Asian politics”) got her up to speed.
“I ran and lost in 2006. Then I came back in 2008. We ran a really great campaign, but I came up short by 29 votes. It was heartbreaking and it took a while before I decided to run again.”
Like Boac, Sallings was not the dominant winning vote in this month’s elections. But she said, “a win is a win.”
In the course of her 13 years in the district, “It has changed for the worst. Not so much in the teachers or the programs. But we have seen a lot of administrations leave in the last four years. There’s been a mass exodus of principals and top administration. A lot of it had to do with the Board and how its members were conducting themselves.”
Salling’s focus is clear: “The main job of a school board member is to hire and fire the superintendent and also to set the vision. Some (Santa Clara Unified) school board members were getting involved where they shouldn’t be. Things like staff evaluation of principals and the like.”
“I think if you are a school board member, you should definitely be asking questions because everything isn’t a slam dunk and it’s our children’s education. We should be respectful of the professionals in the classroom every day. So curriculum choices shouldn’t be coming from the school board. It should be coming directly from the principals.”
“There was a lot of strife between school board and staff. We’ve gone through five superintendents in the last eight years. This should have been a red flag to people outside.”
Sallings’ school board district is comparably more affluent than Boac’s. For Sallings, the median family income in her district “is not over $100,000.” Boac said, “Thousands of our district’s students were in the Free Lunch Program.”
Sallings’ district may not have the same problem as Boac’s. But they have different problems. “What I’m hoping to see is a real change in focus to the teachers, not the strife between the teachers’ union and the Board.”
Sallings also said, “If I had all the money in the world, I would be training teachers more than professional athletes. (Perhaps, obliquely referring to Santa Clara City’s expensive Levi Stadium mainly for the San Francisco 49ers.) Because when you come down to it, our society is based on how we educate our children.”
Echoing Boac somewhat, Sallings said, “It does not make sense for us not to have the best in technology. It does not make sense that these (high-tech) corporations around us are not donating more to our schools. We’re producing their workers. We’re their biggest help because their first pick (of start-up talents) come from here.”
Sallings also said, “Instead of teaching our kids PowerPoint, I think we should teach our kids how to use a computer to creatively and critically solve problems.”
Sallings explained, “I believe in STEAM because we also need to put the Arts in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”
She cited the achievements of people like “(former President) Bill Clinton and (economist) Alan Greenspan who used both left and right sides of their brain and were musically inclined.”
She also gushed over her 19-year-old daughter who pursues dancing and aerospace engineering with the same passion.
For Common Core
Both Boac and Sallings have to tackle the on-going implementation of the Common Core State Standards for education. It replaced the No Child Left Behind program when California joined more than 40 states in Common Core. It is so new that testing for evaluating it is still being debated. While some detractors argue that Common Core will neglect the star pupil or the outstanding achiever, Boac disagreed.
Said Sallings, “Common Core is a leveler. It’s something that we need to implement. I’m really jealous that my 19-year-old daughter couldn’t be a part of it because it’s such a great way to take up fewer items as a standard and dig deeper into them.”
As to undocumented students, Boac said, “We don’t ask students’ immigration status and there are a lot of them. “ She also said, “We’re wasting valuable resources. We should put them to work instead of giving away (to other countries) the benefits of a US education.”
She also said, “There is no fear for undocumented students to be reported to the INS (now ICE and the Border Patrol). The school’s job is to accept and educate all students who walk in. Our public schools are here to welcome all students.”
Sallings said, “I don’t know about the district’s official stand on undocumented students. But I look at Jose Antonio Vargas and I think it’s such a waste (to just deport him). It’s not their fault, many of them (like Vargas) didn’t know (about their real immigration status). But it’s our right to provide an education for every child.”
Even when she retired as principal, Boac got involved coaching the next-gen teachers at San Jose State University and the National Hispanic University. She did it again for future educators and principals at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. She also holds leadership positions at Children, Health and Education Foundation (or CHEF), Filipina Women’s Network (or FWN) and Human Development International (HDI).
Sallings is currently director of Business Development & Special Events at San Jose Jazz. Aside from her many school committee involvements, she divides her time between the boards of Santa Clara Schools Foundation, Wilcox Dance Team Boosters and Next Vista for Learning. Her passions include the Democratic Activists for Women Now (or DAWN), Asian Pacific American Democratic Club and the LGBT rights organization Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (or BAYMEC).
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