Leadership In a Small Town

Before Sam Phillips started fighting for grown-ups, he fought for students.

Phillips is an American Indian and a utility maintenance employee in the Potter Valley Community Unified School District, a rural K-12 district with fewer than 300 students 130 miles north of San Francisco. His own daughter had disabilities and he felt the district people planning her program were not really paying attention to her. “They put her in a room with a total stranger, and when she didn’t respond to him, they decided she was mentally retarded,” recalls Phillips. He got involved and changed that. His daughter has since graduated from high school and is doing well in community college.

Sam Phillips

After that success, other Indian parents came to him for help dealing with special education authorities. Phillips found that, all too often, Indian children were identified as needing special education when the real problem was a lack of cultural familiarity on the part of district staff. He won every disputed case.

Then parents started to call him who were not Indian but had heard how effective he was.

In general, Phillips says he has found the administrators cooperative. “Once we shone a light on the situation, they understood and did the right thing,” he said.

And from there, it seemed a natural jump to start helping education support professional colleagues get fair treatment from management. Phillips became grievance chair and then president of the Potter Valley Classified Employees Association.

Sometimes, managers would hire friends to do union work when regular staff members were available. Phillips got the administration to give the staff a first crack at extra hours. He also got the union involved in community work like raising money for student scholarships.

Phillips credits training he received in NEA leadership programs for much of his success in strengthening the ESP local and working with administrators.

Stephanie Bearden, president of the parallel teachers association in Potter Valley, says he’s “a fountain of energy,” and adds, “It tires me out just thinking about him.”

“He always has something positive to say to everybody. He’ll see a kid who’s down and he’ll stop and talk to him, be with him, help him out.”

Besides working with Phillips in dealings with district officials, Bearden also runs a student multicultural club with him. Actually, he recruited her for that—“they needed a teacher sponsor,” she explains.

When Phillips can’t be at a club meeting, she says, attendance is down by half. The club makes an important contribution to members’ lives, she says, because “Some of them are at-risk kids who aren’t in other activities. The club involves them, makes them feel part of something.”

Like its whirlwind leaders, the club’s 30 members carry wide-ranging activities from walking in the Memorial Day parade with their own float to inviting a nearby group of Buddhist nuns and monks to come and explain meditation, to taking a field trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

A recent grant from the California Teachers Association will help them do even more.

Recently, Phillips and Bearden organized a recognition luncheon for Potter Valley staff members, which was attended by the school board president, CTA Vice President-elect Eric Heins, CTA board member Larry Allen, and NEA Executive Committee Member Paula Monroe. Phillips used the occasion to enlighten community members about California’s disastrous budget situation.

Phillips has also been involved in NEA’s Anti-Bullying Work Group. And  in 2010, CTA gave Phillips its ESP of the Year award. “He’s an amazing person,” says Bearden.