Happy trails, Superintendent Sweeney

Dr. Patrick Sweeney retired after serving as Superintendent of Napa Valley Unified School District since 2010

Pat Haines, Director, Marketing
Published on July 9, 2018

Tell us a bit about your background in education: What made you decide to work in education and when did you become Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD) superintendent?

I’ve been in education my entire professional career and I’m a strong believer in a public school system that serves all students, socio-economic levels, and belief systems. When I was in third grade, I wanted to be a missionary and work in Latin America. I have worked with Latino students in California since 1980, and was a superintendent in Mexico for four years.

I became the NVUSD superintendent in 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, which severely impacted the State of California and the nation. We were experiencing teacher layoffs, furlough days and salary cuts. NapaLearns was there to help us leverage our resources and to get us through that period. They invested in teacher scholarships, updated our technology and helped put it into students’ hands, and supported the implementation of project-based learning (PBL). Prior to PBL, there wasn’t a lot of joy in learning; teachers were teaching to a test.

PBL makes learning go deeper than surface level learning, more applicable, allowing us to teach the whole child and develop real world skills.
Napa Valley Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Sweeney greets guests following his 2018 State of the Schools address. Photo: Maria Sestito, Napa Valley Register

How have things changed over the last 8 years in NVUSD?

Over the last eight years, we have achieved greater coherence in teaching 21st century skills, in providing equitable access, and in moving all schools forward in a unified way. For example, in addition to teaching the content standards like other schools in California, we are educating our students with the 6 C’s: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, character, and global citizenship.

What are some things you wish more people understood about education in Napa?

There are three things:

  • First, our kids love to learn and apply their knowledge in real-world situations.
  • Second, we have — and still need — incredible partners to make learning real for students through exposure to those real-world applications.
  • And, third, our teachers are super committed; they work long hours to keep our students engaged and we’re making big gains in NVUSD: In 2006, 23% of our students qualified for University of California; now more than half (51%) qualify for the University of California. When these students come back with college degrees, we are helping them overcome poverty.

What do you think makes NVUSD different or unique? How would you describe its culture?

Napa Valley is a conglomeration of several cultures; we serve students from all walks of life. Tourists may think Napa Valley is an affluent community; however, in reality it is several communities in one. In Yountville, Napa, and American Canyon, 53% of the students receive free or reduced price lunches because they are in poverty. Approximately 22% of our students are English Language Learners, which means they speak another language and are not yet fluent in English.

It is a very diverse community with a lot of “heartwork” involved. Our goal is to empower students and get them out of poverty, and into college and careers, so they can support a family of four here in Napa Valley. We want student graduates to be productive and thoughtful citizens who will make a difference.

Looking back, what are you most proud of during your time as superintendent? What would you do differently in hindsight?

I’m proud that all of our schools have a shared vision to transform lives and inspire lifelong learning. The principals, faculty and staff are making progress on the same, consistent academic goals:

  1. Prepare students for college and careers
  2. Provide equitable access and opportunities
  3. Promote healthy living

Student success continues to improve in academics, behavior, and feeling confident in their own efficacy as learners. More students, from all socio-economic groups, are graduating from high school and prepared for college. I’m also proud of our partners, like NapaLearns, Napa Valley College, civic leaders, and the Napa Valley Education Foundation. I’m proud that we are engaging all of the students — especially those students, who may not otherwise receive opportunities, are succeeding. Our teachers are committed to preparing students for college, careers and and life.

What would I do differently?

I would definitely celebrate our successes more. I would also narrow the number of standards we are expected to meet. There are too many standards with not enough days of school to master them. I would also have expected that students become accomplished in the life and career skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication, character and global citizenship. These real world skills, we call the six C’s, are applied across all subject areas and are critical to being a productive, contributing global citizen.

Tell us about your relationship with NapaLearns. Are there challenges or changes you would like to see as you look ahead?

I would like to express tremendous gratitude and appreciation to NapaLearns. NapaLearns helped us to think differently; they are true philanthropists, who are in it for the students. NapaLearns helps us get more donations and resources to support what we are all working to accomplish. We’re blessed to have NapaLearns as part of our school system.

As you reflect on NVUSD’s journey with PBL, what were the highlights? Where would you like to see it evolve in the future?

NapaLearns helped fund the professional development needed to change the way we teach from old school to new school — focusing on real-world situations, working in teams, and applying skills. We went from only New Tech High using PBL, to all ten secondary schools using PBL on a regular basis. Eight elementary school use inquiry-based practices on a regular basis and I would like to see that grow. I would also like to see students apply their learning to improve needs in the real world — like community service, where students can contribute to the larger community so that they have a sense of efficacy (and the community members know and recognize the students).

What are the top 3 things that will impact education in Napa over the next year or two? What advice are you giving to your replacement, Dr. Rosanna Mucetti on her first year?

There are three things that I see impacting education in Napa: The lack of affordable housing is contributing to the decline in student enrollment as families move away, and that directly affects our budget. Second, deeper more rigorous PBL requires more teacher professional development. And, third, we need to continue to invest in partnerships and the communities to support our schools.

In terms of advice, I would say, “recognize the good work of our staff and our valuable partnerships, and take it to the next level!”

So, retirement. What are your plans? What do you think you’ll miss most?

I’ll miss the people: the students, teachers, administrators, school board, parents, and the many community people who are part of our education efforts. I especially appreciate the non-profit leaders, law enforcement partners and civic leaders who work to make the Napa Valley a better place to live. I am blessed to know some incredibly dedicated human-beings.

Locally, I plan to support and mentor aspiring leaders, especially underrepresented people, such as women, the youth, those in poverty, and people of color, to reach their personal and professional goals, and make a difference in the community.

Internationally, I’m planning to train teachers and school administrators in Guatemala, (and possibly other countries) to help build student educational success, and do my part to improve lives.

Watch the full interview.