Profiles in Education: Sandy Thorstenson, Whittier Union HSD
Superintendents are charged with developing young minds to their full potential while keeping them safe. This pivitol role pulls together the personnel and resources of all departments to ensure every part works toward the goals of the district. To gain insight into the mind of a school district’s head, we talked to Sandy Thorstenson, former Superintendent of Whittier Union High School District.
Q1: Describe your journey from student to Superintendent of Whittier Union.
When I was a student, I had no idea I would one day become Superintendent, let alone of the community I was raised in. As a kid, I was mainly focused on doing my best in my courses. I was so thrilled to earn a teaching position with Whittier Union at just 22 years old. After 25 years in the district, I began my 14-year career as the district’s Superintendent.
My Superintendent moved me around from school to school and position to position like a chess piece. If I had originally aspired to be Superintendent, this would have been the perfect way to prepare. I had been a student, parent or staff member at every one of our schools. By the time I became Superintendent I had forged a relationship with each school. When my predecessor announced his retirement, he came into my office, closed the door and told me, “Sandy, the board doesn’t want to go through a selection process. They want to appoint you as Superintendent.” My jaw just about hit my desk.
Q2: What did it mean to lead the district you grew up in?
When I was a kid at Whittier High School, the demographics were very different back then. I was one of a very small number of Hispanic kids in the district back in the 70s. So fast forward to when I began teaching, and the demographics began to shift. Now, you have well over 80 percent Hispanic kids. I was the first female Hispanic Superintendent of Whittier Union.
I was honored to be a role model for our kids, especially for our girls and Hispanic students. I grew up in a neighborhood that wasn’t affluent. My parents provided my siblings and I with what mattered most: a strong faith, a close and loving family, a strong work ethic and high expectations in how we treated people.
I frequently shared with our students what my parents taught me about hard work and strong character being the most important qualities, no matter what work they choose. It was gratifying to see the inspiration in these kids’ eyes as I told my story.
Q3: Can you describe a broad overview of the responsibilities you had as Superintendent?
The scope of the work was so enormous and multi-dimensional. As Superintendent, I was responsible for the academic achievement and physical safety of over 13,000 teenagers (it’s a high school district), and we had an additional 7,000 adult learners.
I worked hard to foster a healthy organizational culture built on a foundation of trust and professional collaboration among all 1,800 of our employees and our three professional unions. It was important to me to include district leaders in problem solving and long-term decisions so that they were totally bought in.
One of the mantras the district has embraced since my time is that demographics do not determine destiny, which is what a lot of research shows. What we set out to prove at Whittier Union is that if the staff is high-caliber and synchronized, and they believe deeply that their efforts correlate to student achievement and well-being, it doesn’t matter the kids’ background or socioeconomic level.
Every single one of our schools improved multiple performance metrics over time. It was such an incredible thrill to see each school grow in state testing scores, attendance data, graduation data and college acceptance data, while declining in suspension rates and expulsions. Everything went in the direction we wanted it to go.
As a result of the work from the entire team, the district earned recognition at state and national levels, and it fueled the motivation and enthusiasm of the entire staff. They believed in themselves.
As Superintendent, I tried to visit the classrooms in every school at least four times a year. It was a huge investment of my time, but these visits not only provided me with a first-hand account of teaching and learning across all of our schools, it gave me the opportunity to get to know all the teachers and staff in the district.
These relationships helped me build trust, which was especially valuable when I had to make tough decisions. With every major decision, I gathered input from the aforementioned groups to discuss the pros and cons and, ultimately, I made the final decision. I took the same approach with the board, and it was this legwork and communication upfront that so often resulted in 5-0 board decisions. That was the process I followed when we brought on Cenergistic. I had already given the board so much information through regular updates, conversations with members and presentations that when it came down to the final decision, it was a no-brainer.
Q4: What drove you to partner with Cenergistic, and did the partnership produce immediate savings?
When I first heard about Cenergistic (then known as Energy Education) in 2008, I thought it sounded perfect for us. Our district, as with all districts across the state at that time, was experiencing greater-than-normal financial challenges due to the Great Recession. I was determined to bring in Energy Ed, although my CBO was not at all interested. It took me a while to get him on board.
He said at the time the energy program seemed too good to be true, he didn’t know how the savings worked and he noted we had already saved considerably through equipment upgrades. What finally convinced him was the team of experts, the onsite manpower and financial no-risk guarantee. Why would we not do this? I knew we needed new sources of funding, I believed it was going to work, and Whittier Union benefitted tremendously.
Q5: How did Cenergistic allow the district to advance student learning?
It was perfect timing for us, with drastic budget cuts stemming from the state’s fiscal crisis. We eventually had to make the heartbreaking decision to lay off 45 teachers and five counselors, and because I knew all my teachers and staff across the district really well, it was a really low point for me in my superintendency.
But later that summer, we were able to rescind those layoff notices thanks to the savings of the energy program. With the Cenergistic partnership, we were able to significantly lower our energy costs and improve student learning in the classroom.
Layoffs would have resulted in larger class sizes for the teachers that remained, so the savings from our energy conservation program played an important role in helping us bring back our laid-off staff. That decision made a huge positive impact on staff morale, which spawned a wholehearted districtwide effort to reduce our energy consumption even further.
Our board was thrilled, and so was our community. Everybody realized that they didn’t have to give up anything, they just had to help out. We didn’t have to take away their small comforts in the classroom — the program emphasized comfort and making our teachers and students happy.
We saved an average of 27 percent annually across the timeframe of the program. Our previous best effort was about seven percent on our own before we partnered Cenergistic, doing things like converting to LED light bulbs.
Our CBO didn’t complain about the program once it started producing this level of success. His director of business services, however, was an even stronger advocate of the program. He, the Energy Specialist and I were the biggest cheerleaders.
To date, Whittier Union High School District saved over $8 million. For a district of about 13,000, that is a meaningful source of revenue.
Our Energy Specialist was fabulous. Picking the right person for that position makes all the difference in the world — how they interact with the staff and how effective they are can really determine the success of a program. He also asked to tag along with me on several of my quarterly classroom visits, and I enthusiastically supported it.
Fun Fact #1:
Richard Nixon (Class of 1930) was the first person inducted into the Whittier Hall of Fame in 2000. Sandy Thorstenson (Class of 1973) was inducted into the district’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
Fun Fact #2:
When Sandy retired, her school district named a football stadium after her! The Sandra Sanchez Thorstenson Stadium honors almost 40 years of service to the Whittier Union community.
If you’re interested in taking after Sandy and want to know more about Cenergistic’s approach to energy conservation and building safety, contact Cenergistic today by visiting Cenergistic online or calling 1-855-798-7779.