A Journey of Service: Superintendent of Public Instruction - Tony Thurmond

A Journey of Service


Tony Thurmond

California State Superintendent of Schools


State Superintendent Tony Thurmond came from humble beginnings.  His father was a Vietnam Veteran who never returned from the war, and they did not reconnect until adulthood.  At the age of six, he and his siblings were orphaned after the death of his mother to cancer. Thurmond and one brother were sent across the country to be raised by a cousin who they had never met.  Throughout his youth, Thurmond’s family relied on public assistance programs to raise them out of poverty. The opportunities of public education coupled with the support of exceptional teachers, and other caring adults, propelled him to attend Temple University, where he became student body president.

Tony Thurmond’s career has been a journey of service. He is an educator, social worker, and public-school parent. He has served the people of California for 15 years in elected office. 


Earlier in his career, he served on the Richmond City Council, West Contra Costa Unified School Board, and in the California State Assembly, representing District 15. 

Tony Thurmond was sworn in as the 28th California State Superintendent of Public Instruction on January 7, 2019, where he has been a champion California’s nearly 6 million students, with special attention to those historically underserved.  He has worked tirelessly to address disparities and to establish greater equity to access and opportunities. These disparities have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Having led the California Department of Education (CDE) through some of the toughest challenges ever faced by public education, the State Superintendent has utilized all the tools in his tool box to support schools and keep students, staff and families safe while also working to help create the conditions to return to safe, in-person learning. While his position lacks the authority to set education policy and to make local decisions like setting health mandates, the State Superintendent has put tremendous effort into bringing people together (e.g., superintendents, legislators, health experts, and youth) with focused attention on critical issues, actively listening and identifying solutions.  A complete list of his efforts and accomplishments are too numerous to recount but here are some highlights:


·      Helped to establish an educator housing program (using tax credits) to support teacher recruitment

·      Provided training and supports to schools to promote school safety and prevent gun violence through the use of Federal Mental Health First Aid Grants 

·      Facilitated the State Charter Task Force that resulted in legislative proposals that provided balanced changes and the first charter reform in 20 years

·      Led CDE’s intervention to settle 3 strikes happening in three districts in his first months in office. This includes 20 hours of direct facilitation in OUSD because there were no staff members with deep labor negotiation backgrounds

·      Developed a strong relationship with the philanthropic community (prior to COVID) to support his priorities including on-going Internal Implicit Bias training for staff, grants to LEAs, funding to build staff capacity and launch CDE Equity work.

·      Worked with LEAs that were suffering the impacts of fires, landslides, poor air quality and power shut offs. Very hands on approach to getting resources such as generators, masks, etc. CDE is now a recognized partner to CalOES in all disaster response, now having two employees dedicated to disaster response and preparedness for all schools.

·      Secured $6.6 billion in funding to safely reopen California schools for in-person instruction during the pandemic.

·      Launched his All-School Literacy Pledge to ensure that all students learn to read by third grade by 2026, and committed to getting 1 million books in the hands of students.

·      Launched the California Taskforce on Closing the Digital Divide, using it to expand access to low-cost internet to thousands of school children and families, coordinate the distribution of over 1 million devices to low-income households and establish an Innovation Challenge raising $1 million.

·      Increased awareness and assistance for student mental health issues since the beginning of the pandemic, including the creation of a Family Engagement Unit at CDE, which helps school districts empower families around a variety of needs.

·      Led efforts to expand drug and alcohol treatment services for youth, and to bring nutrition and wellness programs to schools, including a campaign that reduced school suspensions by 27 percent.

·      Spearheaded important education work to Diversify the Teacher Workforce, improve Black Student Achievement and combat declining enrollment


Superintendent Thurmond currently lives in Richmond with his two daughters, who attend local public schools. They are his inspiration and a constant reminder about the promise of our neighborhood schools and the strong future that every child deserves.

The following are responses from Superintendent Thurmond to questions designed specifically for this month’s publication of the Children and Youth Policy Update. 


Q: Within Governor Newsom’s $4 Billion Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, what do you see as the single most promising opportunity for educators and students?

A: Governor Newsom’s dedication to mental health is spot on. Given the struggles students have faced during the pandemic, I believe addressing the social–emotional needs of our students must be job number one.  The Governor’s initiative addresses to the need for increased investments in mental health to address the severe trauma our students have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as through another season of devastating wildfires. It gives me hope that the stigma that once was associated with mental health is becoming a thing of the past, and there is acknowledgement the focus needs to be on the mental health needs of our youth. To do this right, we need a significant infusion of people into the workforce to support our students.  I have worked as a social worker, and I know the hands on efforts that need to happen to make connections with students and families. Even before the pandemic there was a dearth of behavioral health professionals, so we need effective programs in place to attract more people to the field and to ensure there will be more mental health professionals to serve students in our schools. 


Q: There are numerous different funding streams now coming to educational entities. Most of these new funding streams are onetime resources. What is your hope, your vision for the maximization of these onetime funds?

A: We have historic levels of onetime resources available; now it’s a matter of how those dollars get invested. There is a growing youth mental health crisis. During this pandemic, our students have experienced extreme levels of depression, we've seen a doubling in the percentage of Black students who have expressed suicidal feelings, and we know there’s an increase in hospitalizations for young people and adults. I am sponsoring SB 1229, a bill authored by Senator McGuire.  This legislation will provide the individual grants to recruit 10,000 mental health professionals to pursue their degree so they can then work to support our children in schools and community organizations.  With this bill, we can maximize these onetime funds that will pay dividends as a long-term investment in our students. 


Q: What do you see as some of the most promising practices that are currently in place to help address the mental health, of teachers, administrators, and educational staff?

A: There have been a lot of promising practices to support teachers and staff. The CDE, Kaiser, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation have been hosting a 7-part webinar series on staff wellness. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation even created a Healthy Schools Program Framework outlining best practices for creating and sustaining a healthy school environment. The California Center for School Climate, a CDE initiative, has also been hosting webinars on mental health, including School Mental Health   

We’ve also seen great innovation across the state in our school districts. Pasadena USD created a “Wellness Studio” for staff that provides resources and tools on self-care, mindfulness and wellness, mental health, and social emotional learning. 

In January 2022, I  announced that we would bring the A Trusted Space: Redirecting Grief to Growth, a film-based program to help address increasing mental health challenges faced by students during the COVID-19 pandemic—to all school employees for free.


The CDE and CalHope has made available a 60-minute mini professional development program that includes a 40-minute film featuring leading experts in education and science and a research-based curriculum, Creating a Trusted Space in Five Days, designed to help teachers and other youth-serving adults work together with students to create trusted atmospheres where healing and learning happen naturally.

 It is available for  free to all K–12 California educators, school staff, and youth-serving adults.


·      A Trusted Space: Redirecting Grief to Growth is a ground-breaking film-based curriculum created during the height of the pandemic to support our first responders in education. Based on research and neuroscience, the film shares how trusted relationships are the most immediate and potent antidote to the damaging effects of stress and trauma that so many students, families, and teachers - all of us - are navigating

·      A Trusted Space was created to support educators, credentialed and certificated, understand the effects of trauma and other emotional stressors and empower them with the tools to address them for themselves and the students they serve from Pre-K to College.


I also want to say that more of our schools are having in-house mental health supports. We have invested $3 billion in community school programs so we can provide wrap-around services to support the needs of students and families. 


Q: Can you describe the 10,000 mental health professionals budget proposal you are sponsoring with the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, and what you hope this will accomplish?  

A: SB 1229 by Senator McGuire is a bold and ambitious plan to tackle our growing mental health crisis. This bill could help generate 10,000 new mental health professionals by providing grants of $25,000 to aspiring professionals who commit to serving two years in schools or community based organizations in communities of high need. This bill invests in developing people.  By building the pipeline of mental health professionals, we are essentially bolstering the system that will support our students and schools for years to come.  We need  a more robust and more diverse mental health workforce so that we can address the trauma kids are facing today but also ensure that we have long-range impacts on California’s students. 


Q: As a follow up to the previous question, what brings you to this issue around supporting the mental health workforce specifically?

A: Look, we know that mental health is common. It is treatable and it is something that needs attention. Removing the stigma of asking for support is so important and it has been a critical step.  It is unfortunate it has taken a pandemic to get us to this place, but I am happy it is something that can now talk about. Now, when our schools are seeing the greatest funding in history, it is time to bring the resources to build the systems and structures that will sustain us into the future. 

This is not just something I am working on as an elected official--I spent much of my career in social work and specifically social work in schools. I know first-hand what it takes to engage with students and their families. To knock on doors of some of the most underserved kids, and get them the services and resources needed to make learning possible.  I have always found ways to leverage school-community partnerships so that we maximize the benefits for kids.

Public education was a game changer for me.  And, I was able to rise out of humble beginnings because of the opportunities that mentors, caring adults and teachers provided to me.  We need more people on the ground doing the hard work of supporting student mental health.


Supporting the academic recovery of our students is a top priority, but there is nothing more urgent than addressing the social emotional needs of California students. In California, we have seen a persistent challenge in finding enough counselors to keep up with the need. Aspiring mental health professionals shouldn’t be dissuaded from pursuing the field due to cost, and by sponsoring SB 1229, I want to help remove these barriers.  More mental health professionals serving our schools means more students getting the help they need.