Leading With Compassion: Moreno Valley Superintendent of Schools, An Example for Others to Follow

Leading With Compassion: Moreno Valley Superintendent of Schools, An Example for Others to Follow

S.E. Williams | Contributor

Moreno Valley Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Martinrex Kedziora, is changing the paradigm of what it means to be a leader in today’s public education system. 

By his own testimony, it is easy to see how coming of age in the American south during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement informed his life in ways that  have served as a guiding principle for how Kedziora fulfills his roles and responsibilities as an educational leader striving for excellence and making a difference in public education here in the inland region. 

Born in South Carolina, raised in Tennessee, and educated at ‘Ole Miss and the University of Memphis, he began his career as an educator teaching English at an inner-city school in Memphis, Tennessee. He then spent a period teaching in Texas before returning to teach in another part of Memphis. In 1988, Dr. Kedziora went on a recruiting trip and secured a position as a special education teacher in the City of Fontana where he taught for five years before moving on to San Bernardino City Schools for nearly eight years, first teaching special education, then serving as an assistant principal before becoming principal of a community day school there.   

Following his time with San Bernardino City Schools he served as middle school principal in Yucca Valley, then as director of professional development in Hemet for seven years before finally settling in with the Moreno Valley School District where he has spent the last eight years first as the district’s chief academic officer and now, as the superintendent of schools.

In an exclusive interview with The IE Voice/Black Voice News, Dr. Kedziora shared what inspired him to pursue education as a career, “[As a child,] I loved school, was very social and spent a lot of time in the office for talking–that’s what you got in trouble for then,” he confessed with a smile in his voice. “I talked a lot,” he continued, “and that got me in trouble.”

Dr. Kedziora said he liked being in the office (he often found himself sent there for talking too much in class) and that’s when he decided he wanted to be a principal. It seemed to him being in the office you got to do everything. “I didn’t know you had to teach first, until I got to college,” he recalled. “I told everybody I was going to be a principal and they would say, ‘O.K.’ But, when I got to college I was told, ‘You’ve got to teach first. You can’t just go and be a principal.’ I do,” he questioned? He later learned before you can be an administrator, you must have three years’ teaching experience

“I enjoyed school tremendously,” he stressed again. “I was involved in a lot of activities. When I was in high school, I was involved in everything and my principal would get on me sometimes. He would say, ‘You gotta’ go to class to graduate; and I thought [jokingly]. . . well . . . I can’t believe that.” And, despite his principal’s counsel, he continued doing all the extra-curricular activities and they did not impede his ability to graduate.  

As Superintendent of Schools in Moreno Valley Dr. Kedziora has charted a path for his district rooted in the concept of educational equity, working to assure his students’ personal/social circumstances—including gender, ethnicity, family background, economic circumstances, etc., are not obstacles to their ability to achieve their educational potential.

One of the ways he works to accomplish this is through leadership sessions he conducts with his team at the beginning of each school year. Last year, the session focused on equity which includes new ways of looking at things like LGBTQ lifestyle, closing student achievement gaps, etc. 

During last year’s session, Judy Shepherd, the mother of Matthew Shepard spoke to those in attendance. Matthew was a gay student who was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die in October 1988 while attending the University of Wyoming. Although rescuers found Matthew and rushed him to a local hospital—he succumbed to his injuries six days later. The hate crime garnered world-wide attention. 

“It was very poignant when she spoke about what happened to her son, and people were crying,” Dr. Kedziora recalled. “I don’t think people knew,” he continued. 

Matthew’s mother talked about the importance of equity and acceptance overall in life. “I just think a lot of people don’t really realize what people have been through. So, when these people share their stories—people don’t really argue or get upset, they seek to understand—they appreciate that they are being exposed to it.”

Many of those in attendance, Dr. Kedziora reflected, thanked him for Shepard’s presentation. “I wished I had known.” they said. “I’m glad that I know now, and I’m glad that someone tells us about these things because I didn’t always know that these things happened. Like with anything in your own life, if you are not personally experiencing something—you don’t know what you don’t know,” he emphasized. 

The district’s focus on equity carried forward into this year. “We are still focused on equity because you are never done. This year, we are going to focus on the social/emotional learning of equity,” he elaborated on how sometimes, kids go through different experiences, but adults don’t always try to help them. 

“We have to think of ways [to do so]. So often I hear, ‘Well, why didn’t they tell me?’” To which he responds, “It may be because these kids don’t know how to say this to you. They don’t even know if they can say this to you.” Adding, “You have to notice when they are not feeling well or not doing good, and ask, ‘What can I do to help you?’ Because they don’t know that you will.” 

As a district, “We are going to work on that,” he committed. “We are also working on mind set. Our theme this year is ‘Lift to Rise.’ We are going to talk about how we lift others so they can rise. That’s a big part of equity. When you have [positive] things in your life, you have to show and share with others, and model it so they know they can do it too. And then, help them do it. Help them see what’s possible—lift them so that they can rise.” He stressed further, “Don’t just do it once—a lot of people say, ‘I told him, I did this.’ But, how many times did you do it?” he asks them. 

Dr. Kedziora acknowledges and is sensitive to the issue of unconscious bias that can often be a barrier between Black students and their White teachers. He stated it continues to be an issue noting how everyone has bias and how important it is to learn to deal with those biases more effectively. 

“Sometimes people don’t even realize how biased they are,” he pointed out. “But the kids feel it, they sense something sometimes. So, we do training in unconscious bias in our district.” Initially the district trained everyone in a two-day training session and now it is training all teachers new to the district. “It is one of those things you have to keep working on. Everybody has different feeling about things, but you have to look at how it affects your work. How you make people feel.” 

To dramatize this, Dr. Kedziora shared a recent experience he had with a parent while visiting a school site. “This parent sees me and tells the assistant principal, ‘Ask Dr. K. to come in here because he really cares about my child.’ Now, this is an African American parent,” he explained further, “And, I asked myself why the parent thought this way? Maybe because I work on making parents feel comfortable . . . I think how hard it is for some people to listen, to understand, and to have good manners while they listen. A lot of people don’t feel as comfortable to share things with certain people because they don’t feel the person is listening or that they have the time. 

Dr. Kedziora discussed how, when he meets with a parent, he leaves his cell phone in his office so as not to be disturbed and shares with them he has set aside an hour for their meeting. He listens and takes notes on things they say. His goal is always to be sincere and genuine with them. “They see that,” he confirmed.

“It’s not anything special that I do,” he added. “Although people say, ‘Well you are the superintendent, that’s why they listen to you. No,” he responds, “They want to talk to me and there’s a reason why they want to talk to me,” once again acknowledging his commitment to always be authentic and sincere. Dr. Kedziora attributes this to his own school experiences as a child.    

“It all goes back to my third-grade teacher, she was African American,” he began. “In the south, they did a slow process to integrate our schools. They fought it [of course] and one of the first things they did was to integrate the faculties—they had a court order to desegregate the faculties of each school. So, this was the first year there were some Black teachers in White schools and some White teachers in Black schools.”

As mentioned, his teacher that first year of faculty desegregation was Black. “Her name was Maggie Barnet Ralston. “She was one of my favorite teachers growing up. I know I was a pain in the butt, but she loved me. She used to tell me. ‘You, are something else!’  I would ask her about everything, and she would talk to me just like I belonged with her,’ he fondly reminisced.   

That year also happened to be the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “I remember he was killed on a Thursday,” Dr. Kedziora recalled, “I loved her [referring to his teacher], so when she didn’t come to school the day after King’s death, I was really upset. I went to the office and asked where she was because she was never absent. I knew there was a lot of rioting and unrest in our city because of what happened, and there was a curfew. I knew all that was happening, and I said to the principal. “Mrs. Ralston is not here. What happened?”

‘She can’t come to school right now,’ he replied and when I asked why? I was told, ‘It’s not safe for her.’ I said, “Well, we’re here.” ‘I know,’ the principal responded. ‘But, it’s not safe for her.’” Then I asked, “Because she’s Black?” The principal retorted, “You are going to be in so much trouble if you don’t get to your class and be quiet.”  Dr. Kedziora shared his disbelief, “[T]hat we could go to school and she couldn’t. . . I was really worried about her.”

He managed to get himself sent back to the office by the substitute teacher—which was not hard for him to do, he confessed. “I told the secretary I’m worried about Mrs. Ralston.” She explained how Mrs. Ralston just couldn’t come to school. ‘It’s going to take a while, so you are just going to have to deal with it,’” she told him. He then asked how the secretary knew Mrs. Ralston was O.K. because none of the Black teachers were at school. ‘How do you know that?’ she questioned. “Because I looked,” he answered.  

Dr. Kedziora continued to press for information asking, “How do you get a hold of Mrs. Ralston if you need her?”  The secretary told him they had her phone number. ‘It is right here in my drawer.’ “Can we call her,” he implored? “I would really like to talk to her.” ‘No, you can’t call her,’ the secretary quipped. 

“And I said to myself, whatever I grow up to be, I’m going to be sure that people are safe, and that they are cared about—and, that they know that they matter.”
Dr. Martinrex Kedziora

Dr. Kedziora took a seat as directed but as soon as the secretary was called out of the office, he went over to her desk. “I knew I should not have done this” he admitted and continued. “I found that book and I looked up Mrs. Ralston’s name and dialed her number—I was doing all of this really quick and I was shaking. I got her on the phone and Mrs. Ralston said,’ Boy, what are you doing calling me?’ 

“I just wanted to know you were O.K.” he lamented. ‘I will call you tonight,’ she said hastily.  ‘I will call you at home. If you get caught, the principal is going to paddle you and you are going to get into so much trouble.’ I don’t care, I responded.” But, she continued, “’They will think I can’t handle you if you are the office. To which I responded, No, Mrs. Ralston, I’ve been sent to the office in kindergarten, first and second grades.”     

Although they hung up, Dr. Kedziora did get in trouble because they caught him in the process. He went back to class and told the other students he talked to the teacher and she was fine, although no one believed he really had. 

That night true to her word, Mrs. Ralston called him at home. When his mother questioned why she was calling him directly he replied, “Because I told her I needed to talk to her.” 

When he took the phone, Ralston explained, “I told you I live far away from the school, and now that Martin Luther King was killed, I can’t come right now.  A lot of us can’t come out there because there is a lot of rioting and they are worried about our lives.” 

Becoming emotional as he recounted the story, Dr. Kedziora continued. “It just made me feel like really sad. I thought to myself, ‘It’s not fair that she can’t come, and we can. It really did something to me. I said to myself, ‘Whatever I grow up to be, I’m going to be sure that people are safe and that they are cared about—and, that they know that they matter.’”  

Watch for Part 2 of Dr. Kedziora’s story in The IE Voice/Black Voice News next week.

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