The Forestville school district is starting the school year with a new superintendent.
Renée Semik has been the principal at Petaluma Junior High School for the past six years. Prior to Petaluma she was a principal in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. As is common in small west county districts, Semik will do double duty as principal of the seventh and eighth grade classes.
Semik has a master’s degree from Cleveland State University in Ohio, a bachelor’s in history/social science education from Grove College in Pennsylvania and a California teaching credential in social science.
She has worked in both large districts (Santa Monica and Nashville, Tenn.) and in small rural schools in Ohio and Saipan.
Semik, who is replacing retiring superintendent Phyllis Parisi, hails from the East Coast. She is the oldest child and only girl of four children in what she describes as “a big, close-knit, blended family.”
She grew up in a small town outside of Cleveland called Eastlake, where she graduated from the same high school that her mother did, a multigenerational tradition that’s also common in the Forestville district.
She was the first person in her family to go to college, which she said was both exciting and overwhelming.
“I was used to calling my mom or dad when I needed help, but there were times I was navigating a lot of that by myself. I’ll admit that I had these moments freshman and sophomore year where I said to myself, ‘Do I belong here? Is this what I really want?’ I have a pretty fierce sense of independence though, and that was helpful in allowing me to figure out ‘How do I do all of this? How do I make this work?’”
Semik always wanted to go into teaching, and she entered college with the plan of becoming a math teacher, but soon realized math wasn’t the right path for her. Luckily, at this crossroads, her mother gave her some great advice:
“She said, ‘Here’s the course catalog. Look through all of this and put a star next to any and everything that sounds interesting.’ So I did that, and we looked through the book and she said, ‘Well, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘Well I still want to be a teacher but probably a social science teacher or art teacher because that was where a lot of my stars ended up being.’ So I went back and immediately changed my focus.”
Semik said she learned a lot from her mother about how to work her way through difficult situations.
“My mom is a problem solver by nature — both my parents are,” Semik said. “She’d listen to me and then say, ‘OK, what do you think your next steps are?’ She’s not someone who will readily give advice. She’s someone who wants to hear what’s going on and then wants to know what you think about it. She’s really great at asking guiding questions.”
“I carry that with me when I’m working,” Semik said. “Seeing her model that all those years, it was just second nature to me.”
“I’ve been told I’m a good listener, and I definitely pride myself on that,” Semik said. “And it’s not just about what you’re saying, but what’s really underlying that … and where is everything coming from. It’s about trying to get to the heart of what someone is really upset about or really excited about so you can support them moving forward.”
Semik plans on doing a lot of listening this year. When asked about her priorities for this year at Forestville Union, she said, “In terms of change, I’m someone that likes to take a look at what is here first. I don’t assume that things are broken and that I need to fix them, maybe aside from the labor part. (See “Teetering on a strike,” Sonoma West, July 31.) So my priorities this year are discovering and enjoying what Forestville School’s all about and really getting to know the school and the community.”
The labor difficulties at Forestville over the last few years have been hard on everyone, Semik said.
“Not having a contract for two years and being in the midst of really difficult negotiations has broken a lot of trust on both sides,” she said. “Upsetting isn’t a deep enough word. Overwhelming and frustrating to everyone involved in the process is more like it.”
As a result, rather than jumping in with a bunch of new changes, she’s looking forward to helping to repair relationships between the district, the teachers, the board and the larger community.
“For me this first year is to really dig in and really get to know the school and the community as much as possible and build those positive relationships.”
“I’m pretty collaborative by nature,” she said. “I like to include teachers and kids and the community when we’re making decisions about moving forward. I’m hopeful that through the LCAP process, site council process, meeting with groups of students and having students a part of those different groups, we can take a look at where do we need to move forward.”
In terms of the district’s strengths, Semik said she’s been impressed with the high level of community support for the school in Forestville.
“They’ve been very welcoming. People have reached out to say hello or sent me an email, saying ‘Hey, can I come and meet you?’ The Forestville Ed Foundation, I’ve met with them already and that is definitely a strength of the district.”
She also gave a shout out to the teachers.
“Putting the labor dispute aside, the strength of our teachers really shines through,” she said. “They’re generous, giving of themselves and their time, and all the work that they do is definitely been a hallmark of why our kids have been successful so far.”
Forestville was faced with hiring all new teachers for the seventh and eighth grade for this upcoming year due to the closing of the West County Charter Middle School, which operated on the Forestville campus but was run and then disbanded by the local high school. Responsibility for operating the middle school then fell back on the shoulders of the Forestville district.
“Bringing the middle school back under the umbrella of Forestville Union has been both a challenge and a really positive thing,” she said. “Forestville School was a K-8 for 100 years so that was really important for both parents and teachers. So then the question was ‘How do we get that all together?’
“We had a full staff until about a week ago, then our P.E. teacher and our science teacher, each for different reasons, ended up going someplace else so now we’re in the process of trying to fill those positions as soon as possible. We’ve already had candidates apply and that’s exciting, and we’re trying to insure that we’ll be fully staffed by the time school starts.”
What does Semik look for in a teacher?
“I’m looking for teachers who love kids and are really all-in with the profession,” she said. “I’m also looking for collaborators who are going to be good teammates for parents, teachers and kids.
“When I look for a teacher I like to ask questions about process and priority so I might give them a real world scenario — ‘You walk into your classroom and all these things are going on, what do you tackle first?’ And tell me why. So you can see where people’s ideas and priorities are and how they talk about students.”
“I also like to ask them why they became a teacher,” she said. “That’s always interesting to me in general but I think it also gives you a lot of insight into who they are as people.”
Semik also brings an important skillset to her new job: an interest in anti-racism work and anti-bias training.
“I taught in Nashville for the first three years of my career, and it was really there that the historian in me took an abrupt turn and really started focusing on civil rights and human rights in the United States, particularly in terms of race and racism. That is really important to me,” she said.
Semik has taken students on trips to the Deep South to go to places that were central to the civil rights struggle, including Atlanta, Montgomery and Little Rock, and her students also got a chance to meet some of the people who participated in the movement.
“That’s been very pivotal and very in the forefront of what I read outside of school. (I’m a big reader.) I’ve also done a lot of anti-bias and anti-racism training and have been a trainer. Those are some things I carry in my toolbox.”