"There's a fishing pole in the garage that needs dusting off."
Felton Williams has been a professional educator for 36 years. For the last 15, he has been a member of the Long Beach Unified School District board.
By this time next year, he plans to be fishing.
Williams grew up in San Pedro, and came across the bridge to attend Cal State Long Beach, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration. He went on to Claremont Graduate University and earned a doctorate in education.
His professional career centered around Long Beach, as well. Except for a three year stay at Sacramento City College, he has worked at Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Dominguez Hills and Long Beach City College, where he ultimately became dean of the School of Business/Social Sciences.
That time at LBCC connected him to LBUSD. He said he was the college's point person in implementing the Seamless Education program with the school district and the university.
"I saw that there was some work to be done (in the school district)," Williams said. "Being part of the seamless education team, I got to see how we looked at each other, and I saw how the kids were coming to us… They (LBUSD teachers) had to give points for participation. It was called class discipline, but it wasn't engaging students. Now that we have common core, it has opened up dialog."
Williams was elected to represent District 2 on the school board in 2004. He replaced Bobbie Smith, the first African-American on the school board, after Smith asked him to run.
"I thought I might have something to offer," Williams said. "The rules in K-12 are a lot different than in higher education. Due to the education code, to get things changed, you have to go through a lot."
It didn't help that shortly after Williams joined the board, the state began experiencing budget problems. By the time the Great Recession hit in 2008, LBUSD had already gone through budget cuts.
"We were in the midst of laying off 800 teachers," Williams said. "I, we, had to focus on how to protect the core. I started pushing for a strategic plan so we knew where to go…
"Cutting jobs was one of the most emotional parts of my job; to look at someone knowing they need the job to support their family. But you just had to be fiscally responsible. If we didn't, we wouldn't have a school district at all."
Once that crisis passed, LBUSD faced another — enrollment was going down, and families of students still in school were getting poorer and more ethnically diverse. Lower enrollment meant less state money, and poverty meant more barriers to learning. Today, more than 70 percent of the district's students qualify for subsidized or free lunches; in Williams's District 2, it is almost 90 percent.
Yet Long Beach continued to be one of the best urban school districts in the country. Residents passed bond issues to improve infrastructure, and a culture of expecting achievement was nurtured in schools districtwide.
Williams attributed the successes to good leadership — Chris Steinhauser has been school superintendent for Williams's entire tenure — and a community that still holds to an Iowa by the Sea sensibility.
"We live in a city that appreciates and supports its schools," he said. "That Iowa by the Sea culture never really left. People have allegiance to the city, to the schools."
Since the beginning of his tenure, Williams has pushed for minority achievement in the district. He said it was work to convince his colleagues and Steinhauser of the importance of the issue, but once that was done, they have been great partners in the effort.
One benchmark is the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes taken by minorities. That districtwide total has increased from 500 to 3,000 today, he said. Graduation rates continue to rise as well.
"We spend a lot on professional development (for teachers)," Williams said. "I say the biggest issues are to respect the kids and hold them to high standards. If you have high standards, they will try to reach them."
Williams said creation of a partnership with Long Beach's churches and Ministerial Alliance is one thing he considers a legacy. He helped introduce the My Brother's Keeper program to Long Beach and continues to promote partnerships with businesses and organizations citywide.
"The district had 500 business partners in 2004," Williams said. "We have 1,500 today. That's in large part due to the Principal for a Day program headed by Judy Seal (Education Foundation director, who also is retiring this year). They come and see what we face, and then they want to help. We need to keep building on that."
Williams has represented Long Beach at the national Council of the Great City Schools, a group of the largest urban school districts in the country, including serving as president of the board two years ago. He was named the Green-Gardner Urban Educator of the Year in 2017.
"The clock is ticking," Williams said. "And it's a good time to leave. We have a safety net financially… I'm leaving it in good shape."
While Williams said he will do some fishing and traveling, he also will remain involved in education issues. And he has continued a tradition, picking attorney John Matthews II to run for the District 2 seat.
"He has history with Long Beach," Williams said. "I am pleased to endorse him. I feel good moving on."
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.