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Brentwood Union School District Superintendent Dana Eaton is photographed in his office in Brentwood, Calif., on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

By Rowena Coetsee

rcoetsee@bayareanewsgroup.com

BRENTWOOD -- A familiar face in the Brentwood Union School District four years ago, Dana Eaton's busy getting back up to speed as he counts down to the start of another school year.

As the district's new top administrator, he's set aside dozens of 15-minute slots -- 36 in all -- for parents and anyone else who wants to bend his ear during what he calls his "campaign of listening."

Eaton, who returned to Brentwood Union on July 2 after leaving his principal's job for a superintendency in Tracy, wants to get a handle on what's changed during his absence as well as what the public wants from the district.

"This community long has expected to be involved in the school district, and so it's critical that I understand what they think is a priority for (it)," he said.

Some of those who have trickled into his office wanted to talk about problems they had with a principal last year or get help enrolling their child in a different school; others had questions about special education, the curriculum for gifted students, and how Eaton planned to keep parents in the loop.

Although he says he would have reached out even if Brentwood Union hadn't triggered a firestorm of criticism earlier this year over its handling of a student abuse case, the sessions have been a chance for stakeholders to meet a superintendent who considers honesty and openness a hallmark of his communication style.

"That's who I am as a person," said Eaton, 42.

Initiating conversation is part of his approach as well: Upon assuming the leadership of Pioneer Elementary, Eaton called as many parents of incoming students as he could find to introduce himself and share his plans for the new school.

"That told me that this was a very, very special person we had," said former Superintendent Doug Adams.

Eaton says he returned because Brentwood's home. Then, too, with an 8- and 11-year-old in the district, he points out that he has a vested interest in schools' performances.

But he acknowledges that he's rejoining an administration that has left many parents with lingering doubts about its commitment to disciplining and reporting employees who mistreat students.

"I know that trust has been lost," Eaton said. "It takes a really long time to build and it shatters in minutes. I'm under no illusion that it will be rebuilt overnight."

For now, however, he's thinking about Wednesday's board meeting where he'll describe his short-term goals.

Over the next two months he'll also visit city council meetings and attend community events to solicit opinions on Brentwood Union's performance and what the district should focus on. Eaton then will return to the board in late September with recommendations on the priorities it should adopt.

Staying in touch with teachers and students is one of his goals; Eaton hopes to visit each classroom on Brentwood Union's 11 campuses once a month.

"My goal is to make sure I know the district well," he said.

One benefit of this hands-on tactic is that he can see for himself any problems that have cropped up -- and can nip them in the bud -- rather than hearing about them for the first time only after they've escalated.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is waiting until the problem walks through their door," Eaton said.

He neither micromanages nor subscribes to a top-down management approach, he said, something Tony Destro discovered when Eaton, then-principal of Pioneer Elementary, left it up to the brand-new teacher to decide with a colleague what field trips they'd take.

And when Destro floated the idea of a weekly rewards system acknowledging youngsters for behaving and doing their homework, Eaton encouraged him to run with it.

He also included Destro among those charged with determining who would receive the title Teacher of the Year.

"He values other people's opinions -- even first-year teachers'," Destro said.

When it's up to Eaton to call the shots, he makes a point of involving teachers in the discussion if they'll be affected significantly.

Adams has seen Eaton's egalitarian methods firsthand: "He doesn't come in and say these are my demands," he said.

Those who are in the classroom every day have the expertise to weigh in on matters such as which textbooks the district should buy or what kind of training they need, Eaton reasons.

It's better to take the time involving the right people at the outset than having to correct problems that can arise later because the information they had wasn't taken into account, he said.

And that doesn't mean only consulting yes-men, Eaton added.

"Surrounding yourself with people who agree with you all the time is a dangerous thing," he said, explaining that those who challenge him when he's wrong can be instrumental in helping him arrive at the best decision.

But even when there's no consensus, at least others will understand his reasoning because they were part of the process, Eaton said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.