Arguably no teacher from San Diego County has climbed as high in education in recent years as Cindy Marten.
In Martens eight years as Superintendent of San Diego Unified, the school district was considered a leader in California in areas ranging from ethnic studies to academics to COVID prevention. Under her leadership, San Diego Unified’s test scores, graduation rates, and other performance metrics improved.
In January, President Joe Biden nominated her as the new Assistant Secretary of Education for K-12 and higher education.
Marten, whose favorite mantra is “Work hard. Be friendly. Dream big ”, has often spoken of justice as its goal.
“I have dedicated my life as an educator to improving educational opportunities and outcomes for all students,” Marten said during a US Senate committee hearing in March. “I’ve learned firsthand that justice means that every student gets what they need, when they need it, and how they need it.”
Marten grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago before her family moved to San Diego at the age of 11.
Her work as a kindergarten teacher is strongly influenced by her family. She said she developed a passion for public service after her mother taught her how to be selfless while raising Martens’ two siblings – Charley, who is developmentally disabled, and her late sister Laura, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia .
Marten has said many times that Charley was the reason she became a teacher.
“I wanted to teach him,” Marten said in an interview with the Union Tribune in 2018.
Marten attended San Diego Unified Schools for elementary and middle school, then La Jolla Country Day for high school. Marten holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a master’s degree in teaching and learning from the University of California, San Diego.
She began her educational career in 1991 at Beth Israel Day School, then worked briefly at Poway Unified before moving to the Central Elementary School of San Diego Unified in City Heights.
Marten worked for a decade at the mostly low-income school and rose from teacher to headmaster. Under her leadership, the Central Elementary attracted national attention as a turnaround school. It offered preschool and afternoon programs, a community health center, a bi-alphabetical education program, and a farm-to-table style garden. It used smaller class sizes to improve test scores and provided childcare for staff.
Her work in City Heights led the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education to hire Marten as superintendent in 2013, despite previously having no prior district administrative experience.
Under her administration, San Diego Unified students performed better than predicted on standardized tests and outperformed their peers in other major counties, according to the Learning Policy Institute. In 2019, San Diego was one of two major boroughs across the country to achieve higher reading and math scores than the national average for major school districts.
The district achieved this by focusing on developing quality teaching – particularly in literacy – expanding the offering of college courses for high school students, highlighting family connections, and other strategies, the institute said.
Under Marten’s leadership, San Diego Unified also embraced social justice reforms.
The district has changed the way it rates students to be less criminal and to incorporate non-academic factors into academic grading. The district banned middle school students’ suspensions of “deliberate defiance” and has worked to replace punitive discipline with restorative discipline.
The district was one of the first to introduce ethnic studies and changed its curriculum to include colored communities more closely.
In addition to anti-racist efforts, Marten has helped create a new teacher evaluation system that aims to work away from evaluating teachers and working with them on improvements.
And the district is changing the way students are taught and tested math, in part to eliminate racial differences in math scores.
San Diego Unified is also expanding its transition kindergarten program and has developed a youth advocacy department to serve underserved student groups.
Marten continued her work in education against a background of personal loss.
In 2014, her father Don Cohen died after being hit by a car. Two years later, her 25-year-old husband Sergio Marten died of heart failure at the age of 57.
“I went to school, went to meetings. I could have been the grieving widow, but you go, “Marten said in a 2018 Union Tribune story.
As chairman of the San Diego Go Red for Women campaign, Marten helped raise $ 1.2 million and nearly $ 1 million for the Kids Heart Challenge, according to the American Heart Association. Before his death, Sergio Marten had been permanently disabled for a decade, so Marten said she wanted to give back to those who made this extra time with him possible, the club wrote.
In 2018, Marten was named Woman of the Year by the San Diego Business Journal. She also received the National Conflict Resolution Center’s Local Peacemaker Award in 2015, the 2014 San Diego Leadership Alliance Civic Leader of the Year Award, the City Heights CDC Community Advocate Hero Award 2013, the San Diego Bar Association Distinguished Citizen Award 2013, and the Young 2013 Audiences Arts for Learning San Diego Civic Leadership Award, according to the San Diego Unified website.
Marten has been a long-time boy scout and, according to the district, won the highest accolade, the Girl Scout Gold Award and the Thanks Badge, as an adult. She has said many times that she learned leadership skills from Girl Scouts. In 2013 the Girl Scouts of San Diego presented her with the “Cool Woman Award”.
While think tanks and national education leaders have praised Marten for her work in the school district, Marten has paid tribute to the students of San Diego Unified.
“Simply put, every time we challenged our students to achieve more and gave them the resources to do it, they not only met the challenge – they exceeded it,” Marten said in a letter to families following hers Nomination.