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History-making educator has announced his retirement


Dr. Christopher Downing

History can be made at any moment at any level. Most people won't realize it's a new mark in time until after the fact. Dr. Christopher Downing and the Anaheim Elementary School District (AESD) made history six years ago when he was hired as superintendent, marking the first time in history a male African-American held that position in Anaheim. 

Downing’s life as an educator essentially began before he set foot in a classroom, as his parents were both educators.

“As a child, I would go with my mom to her summer school classes where she taught as both my parents worked for LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District). I saw the positive difference they made for the students and community, and it inspired me at a young age.” Downing said in discussing his formative years watching his parents and their impact on the community. 

Downing's teaching career started in 1989 as a classroom instructor with the LAUSD. He turned that into 29 years of service in the county. He served in multiple leadership positions, such as administrator of parent engagement, mentoring in student programs, director of schools in LAUSD, and local district superintendent. His service was accompanied by awards like Harbor Gateway Chamber of Commerce Educator of the Year(2016) and Association of California School Administrators Region XVI Superintendent of the Year(2018). 

In July 2018, Downing departed from LAUSD to become the first African-American superintendent in the history of Anaheim. “This is a special moment for me, and I am thankful to the members of the AESD Board for their confidence,” said Downing during his acceptance speech. “While I will miss my LAUSD families and colleagues, I am excited for the work ahead and look forward to serving the Anaheim community.”

The role of superintendent within a school district is akin to CEO of a company. Superintendents hold a multitude of responsibilities, like their ability to manage finances, personnel, and resources. They are managers who oversee the day-to-day operations of a school district, but they are also leaders who aspire to improve student achievement. Moreover, superintendents are advocates, confidants, and experts in whatever role their district and students need them to fulfill.  

When asked about his knowledge of being the first Black superintendent in Anaheim history, Downing stated that during the hiring process, he discovered if hired, he would be making history.

“Before applying, I did some research into the district and Orange County to make sure the condition and environment would not hinder my success in the community,” Downing said. “It has been a humbling experience, to say the least, being in my role and knowing what it means to the community.”

The Anaheim Elementary School District(AESD) serves nearly 15,000 students across 24 campuses, making it the largest elementary-only school district in California. AESD is 85% Latino students, and 90% of all students are underserved. 

Downing realized that while the area may have changed, the challenges he faced working in LAUSD are nearly identical in Anaheim.

“Most of the students here qualify for free or reduced lunch, there's homelessness, and lots of students are foster youth, so there wasn't much difference from the students I was supporting in Los Angeles,” Downing said in comparing the two school districts. “Given my personal goal of always giving equality and access to underserved students, this job aligned perfectly with making a difference.” 

The first thing Downing did was hold meetings with the community and parents to see what was needed and where their kids lacked support. He also met with different leaders in the district to gauge what their expectations were for the school year to give him a better understanding of how to improve the conditions. The feedback led to Downing focusing on expanding the dual language program (Spanish, Mandarin, and Korean) in all schools as only a few had offered a capable curriculum.  Another thing was the expansion of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) focus program across the districts to ensure all kids had proper access to resources.

Downing received state funding to support the expanded learning opportunities program, which provides funding for afterschool and summer school enrichment programs for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. This has led to 75% of kids staying after school for help on various subjects.

“Gov. Newsom was instrumental in getting us funding for our afterschool programs, which is important in aiding the children's growth and development as they can explore other hobbies and opportunities removed from school hours,” Downing explained.

Downing did note that once the pandemic happened many schools had to alter their procedure for handling the kids and their academics.

“The pandemic hit us like it hit other superintendents across the nation, as it was a challenging moment for us. Safety was the top priority not only for the students but for my staff also, Downing said as he spoke about life during the pandemic. “Secondly, education was important as we needed to provide the highest possible level of education during those times because the kids needed it the most.” 

One thing Downing was relieved about during the pandemic was that Anaheim never experienced a teacher desert that many other districts had during the crisis. “Gratefully, we were never affected by the desert. The only issue was making sure we had extra instructors on hand just in case. Some of our extra educators left the teaching industry for other career fields, leaving us to double check our finances to budget hiring the proper candidates to teach our kids.” Downing also thanked the parents for their commitment to making sure their kids were on time and ready to learn when they transitioned to online learning.

Upon return from the pandemic, Downing and his staff focused on creating a supportive environment for the students so they could properly and safely transition back into learning in school after being away for so long.

“We tried to focus on health and wellness for when our students returned and provide them the support and help they needed in whatever area required,” he said. Steps were taken to help students readjust to being in school and around their peers. “One thing we added was a clinician, more counselors, psychologists, and let students know that everybody is available to them for help in any area they are struggling with.” 

Under his leadership, AESD was recognized by the California Department of Education with the Pivotal Practice Award for its efforts to support students during the pandemic. After six years in the district, Downing has decided to retire at the end of the year. 

“I have enjoyed 35 years of helping underserved children receive the access and equity they deserve to high-quality programming,” the superintendent said in a statement. “Whether through my service as an LAUSD Local District Superintendent helping establish college classes at middle and high schools in South Los Angeles or ensuring that Anaheim students receive the support to overcome socioeconomic barriers to become excellent scholars and members of society, I am extremely proud of all the work that we’ve done. The future for this district is bright.”