The gathering in the Valley High School library Wednesday to welcome Elk Grove Unified’s new superintendent, Christopher Hoffman, had the feel of a homecoming rally.
Roughly 60 students, teachers, parents and administrators gathered to welcome Hoffman back to the district. Banners with Hoffman’s Valley High yearbook picture hung on the walls with the caption “Once a Viking, always a Viking.” Hoffman was selected Tuesday to lead the district.
“We are ecstatic and oozing with pride,” Valley High student body President Jackie Garcia told the crowd. “This is an example of what Vikings are capable of. To see someone who once walked the halls we walk, who wore the same silver and blue we do, is an inspiration.”
Hoffman, 46, teared up when he recounted how he and his wife met as students at Valley High. He was the captain of the football team. She worked at the student store. The 30-year Elk Grove resident attended Charles Mack Elementary School and Samuel Jackman Middle School.
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After completing college, Hoffman took jobs out of town after working initially as a teacher and vice principal in Elk Grove Unified. He was principal at Mira Loma High School in the San Juan District, principal at Tokay High School in Lodi, the associate superintendent and then the superintendent at the El Dorado Union High School District in Placerville. He never moved, despite the long commutes.
“This is the place I call home,” he told the crowd in the library.
Hoffman said he sees his new role as “a calling. It’s an opportunity to give back to the institution that gave me an education.”
Hoffman will be paid $270,000 annually and will receive $800 a month for transportation and business expenses when he starts his job on Nov. 17. His predecessor, Steven Ladd, retired last week after nine years as superintendent.
Hoffman told The Sacramento Bee he intends to invest in “human capital,” by training staff and helping them to develop. “The only chance kids have to improve their performance is if adults get better at what they do,” he said. “Everybody has to get better, including me.”
Board members and union leaders took turns at the podium Wednesday to talk about how excited they were to work with Hoffman, whom they described as innovative, ethical and collaborative.
“What we saw in Mr. Hoffman is a passion for Elk Grove,” said Jennifer Ballerini, president of the union that represents classified employees. Ballerini was among those involved in selecting the superintendent. “He is homegrown. That is really important.”
Yolanda Contreras – one of the parents involved in the selection process – said there was another close contender for the position but that Hoffman’s hometown credentials pushed him to the top.
Finding the new superintendent was a community effort that included an online survey, eight community meetings and 25 stakeholder meetings. People were clear: They wanted a superintendent who will be visible at schools.
That’s fine with Hoffman, who says he never spends much time in his office while school is in session. “I need to be where the kids are and when staff is working,” he said.
As a principal, Hoffman said he spent so many hours in classrooms that after a while, “I became a piece of furniture.”
The new superintendent isn’t daunted by the size of Elk Grove Unified – 62,500 students in 64 schools. El Dorado Union only has nine schools, he said, but they are spread over 1,200 square miles. He visited them often.
Elk Grove Unified parents who were surveyed listed the achievement gap, racism and equity among their top concerns about the district. Wednesday, Hoffman said that he will look into these concerns and will ensure all teachers and staff are provided with the “skills of empathy and understanding.”
The survey also showed that residents wanted the new superintendent to be aware that “there is a split on the school board that makes it difficult for staff to work” with its members. Hoffman expects he and the board – made up primarily of new members – will undergo formal training to outline their roles and responsibilities.
Hoffman’s take-charge attitude quickly evaporates when asked what this new job means to him personally.
“I’m trying to get my head and my heart wrapped around it,” he said. “I met my wife here. I raised my family here.”
He recalls returning to Valley High as a teacher and working side by side with the people who had taught him. He was reluctant to call them by their first names when he first arrived. During those first years, Hoffman kept the part-time job he had since high school at Sears at the Florin Mall because his commissions were more per hour than he made teaching.
One of the best things about working in education, Hoffman said, is hearing from prior students. He runs into them everywhere he goes in Northern California. They often tell him how he affected their lives. It has helped him develop his motto: “Each kid, every day.”
“You never know when you are going to make a difference in a kid’s life,” Hoffman said.