Westmont Magazine She's Just Your Tax Dollars at Work
When students bounce onto the bus in the morning, they’ve started school as far as Karen Swadell Jobe ’70 is concerned. The superintendent for Valley Center-Pauma District northeast of San Diego, she works with bus drivers and gardeners as well as teachers so students will get the best possible education.
“Bus drivers are the first school staff students see, and they set the stage for the day,” Karen says. “A gardener who avoids using a noisy mower during class or goes out of the way to greet students is supporting education.”
Karen taught for 20 years in the rural, one-school district before becoming an administrator. Her work ethic, positive outlook and insistence on taking responsibility for student learning caught the eye of a soon-to-be-superintendent. He encouraged her to bring her talent and passion to administrative work. Rich in experience, she also had an administrative credential and a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.
Starting as an assistant principal at a middle school in 1992, she became principal first of an elementary school and later of a middle school. “I love middle school students,” she says. “I see for them what they can’t see for themselves, that they are going to be OK. They have an excuse for being the way they are! I also enjoy working with bewildered parents who suddenly have difficulty dealing with their kids.”
After a merger with another district and a high school, Valley Center-Pauma has 10 schools and covers 300 square miles. It’s not set in a typical Southern California suburb; the smallest lot size is two acres, and one of the schools — on the top of Palomar Mountain — has nine students. With five reservations nearby (and four casinos), Native Americans make up about 10 percent of the district’s students.
Karen helped preside over the unification as assistant to the superintendent. For the past three years, she has held the top job, working with the newly joined schools to smooth the difficult transition. She is a skilled organizer and has introduced standardized systems on all campuses. Her greatest legacies are a new elementary school, designed with teachers in mind, and an auditorium at Valley Center High School that will double as a community theater. Karen says her mission is to serve the school and the community. She often tells people, “I’m just your tax dollar at work.”
The district maintains its small and personal feel because of the culture Karen has cultivated. “We accept no excuses when students don’t learn,” she says. “The entire staff is responsible for the students. We are all here to serve. When parents call, we expect a teacher to call them back that day. We want parents to feel like their child is at a private school. We listen to parents, honor them and seek creative solutions to problems.”
Karen relishes teamwork and takes an optimistic view of public schools. “I’m excited about the current education picture and the existence of standards, basic guides and accountability,” she says. “Teaching has become a craft, and we have to be creative and work together to make it happen. That makes for a better system and better education. Teamwork is so important — every thought and idea grows exponentially.”
Karen retires in January after 33 years. She plans to spend more time with her husband, Tim ’71, a financial consultant for Merrill Lynch, and her three sons and two granddaughters.