In interview, PUSD superintendent says addressing declining enrollment, student mental health are priorities

Dr. Jennifer Hawn at the Aug. 9 Board of Education meeting.

Dr. Jennifer Hawn knew about the Piedmont Unified School District well before most people here knew about her. She had been working as an assistant superintendent for the Da Vinci schools in El Segundo when former PUSD superintendent Randall Booker left for San Mateo Union High School District in 2022.

As interim superintendent Dr. Donald Evans guided the school district in the 2022-23 school year, Hawn was curious if he would be offered the permanent job or not. “I had my eye on [the job] for almost a year,” Hawn said. “I had reached out to the search consultants when they were hired in November.”

“I had such a great job at Da Vinci, it was hard to give it up,” she said. “I wanted to make sure wherever I went it was a really good fit for me and I could be a value-add for the district. I watched every board meeting. It’s like a marriage: you want to make sure it works for everyone and it just felt right.”

In May, Hawn’s interest was rewarded when she was named the new superintendent in Piedmont. Having been on the job less than two months, it’s still a period of assessment for Hawn. Certainly, she’s joining a district with a stellar academic reputation. Yet, there are multiple challenges ahead.

Declining enrollment poses challenge

Hawn said parent engagement, community expertise, and a supportive school board make Piedmont an amazing district in which to work. Still, there are challenges. “Like many districts, we’re in a state of declining enrollment, she said. “We’re thinking about that: How do we ensure that we are financially stable and can continue to offer outstanding programs to our students?”

Enrollment at Piedmont High School has fallen to fewer than 800 students. The drop in enrollment could eventually lead to the district having to cut programs — last year, the varsity football team had to abandon its season due to a combination of a small roster and injuries. But Hawn emphasized that nothing is on the table yet in terms of cuts. 

“My hope is that we will not continue to decline in enrollment and that we’re going to be able to figure out creative solutions around that,” Hawn said. “Our board has expressed the same concern — if [the trend continues] we’re not going to have enough students to offer all programs.”

“We’re currently looking at potentially adding a few courses, so we’re definitely not cutting yet,” she said. The district is looking at AP courses in Chemistry and Physics. “How to adequately project our enrollment is something I am definitely thinking about.”

“Potentially providing additional housing in the community would be a boon for us,” she said. “I think if we could have more residents in Piedmont, that would be absolutely fantastic. We’ll see what happens.”

In the meantime, PUSD is trying to stay fiscally responsible, Hawn said. Enrollment is tied to state funding, so a continued decline could harm the district’s finances. The district has revised its interdistrict transfer policy over the years in order to boost enrollment with mixed results. Hawn said she is still getting up to speed on that policy.

Student mental health

Hawn said Piedmont’s new director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, Jean Takazawa, as well as its Wellness Center, affinity mentors, anti-harassment programs, and other services for students all play important roles addressing student mental health. School survey data does show improvements in student wellbeing since the pandemic, but measuring the effectiveness of programs is difficult, she said. “We do need to ask the question how do we know it’s working. Surveys, numbers of incidents, types of incidents, monitoring the data are all really going to help us understand if what we’re doing is working.”

Hawn said it appears the schools are recovering from the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the PUSD offices are tucked into the same property as its high schools and middle school, she gets to look out her window and see the students come and go every day. “When I look at students, it feels more normal. It is starting to feel how it should feel at school — students are connecting, teachers are teaching, our staff are doing the great work that they do, so it feels like we are in a really great place.”

“I think people feel good at the start of this year,” she said. “I’m feeling a new energy. I keep hearing from parents, students, and staff that there’s just more hope and a sort of great start to the school year,” she said.

All roads lead to Piedmont

Hawn’s move “up” was twofold: She wanted to make the jump to superintendent and she was looking to come to the Bay Area, where her husband Andrew currently works and where they have friends and family. With their two children grown, the opening came at the perfect time.

She said she first started thinking about becoming a teacher when she was a junior at Mira Costa High School-Manhattan Beach. The self-described “beach kid” went on to spend 13 years as a teacher in Southern California and taught at all grade levels before becoming an administrator for a further 13 years. Along the way she taught at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Hawn has a degree in communications from Arizona State, a masters in teaching English from Loyola Marymount, and a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California.

While at college at Arizona State, she took a job with an airline. “I was hired by U.S. Air, but U.S. Air was merging with Piedmont Airlines so I actually started work with Piedmont,” she said. “All of my jobs seem to lead back to Piedmont.”

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