Education Matters: A wrap-up and new beginnings


As one year ends and another begins, it’s worth a look back in review and a look ahead to 2020. Since 2019 was a bit depressing, let’s start by looking ahead.

Must-see theater

The Jan. 11 performance of the Broadway hit musical Dear Evan Hansen at the downtown Civic Center is the date for a terrific fundraiser that will help bring greater awareness and support for the mental health needs of adolescents and young adults in the era of dependence on social media for self-identity.

Marsha Sutton

With so many teens caught up in the dark side of social media and struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, and social anxiety, Dear Evan Hansen addresses many of these issues in a way that young adults and their families can relate to.

The Jan. 11 fundraiser is presented by the Behavioral Health Committee of Jewish Family Service, a non-profit organization that assists individuals needing support at all stages of their lives — regardless of religion, nationality, color, sexual orientation, gender identity, or immigrant or homeless status.

The event is chaired by Liz Nederlander Coden and Dr. Daniel Coden, who through this charity event hope to bring greater attention to the needs of teens suffering with anxiety and depression.

Two years ago, the Codens offered a similar fundraiser by organizing a night at the theater to see Hamilton, which raised more than $600,000 for local non-profits.

Dear Evan Hansen, which opened on Broadway in Dec. 2016, has received six Tony Awards, including best musical and best score, and was called by the Washington Post “one of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history.”

Liz Coden, whose Nederlander family has been connected to leading Broadway theater for three generations, said the play’s topic is pertinent for the issues kids struggle with today.

The show’s themes are closely aligned with the work of JFS and its Behavioral Health Committee which seeks to eliminate the stigma of mental illness through education and outreach.

The costs for this special performance are $500 for an orchestra seat or $1,000 for a premium orchestra seat, dinner before the show, panel discussion with cast members, valet parking, and a JFS luncheon in May that will focus on teen mental health and social media. A portion of the ticket price is tax-deductible.

Contact Dana Levin at JFS for tickets or further information [858-637-3013 or]. Or go to

What to think about SeaWorld

On the one hand, SeaWorld’s commitment to rescue and assist marine animals in trouble is laudable. On the other hand, should whales and dolphins be kept in tanks for the amusement of the viewing public?

It has been five years since I last visited SeaWorld. Back then, before the Blackfish expose, SeaWorld trainers swam with and danced atop whales’ noses and played and rode on dolphins’ backs.

Much has changed since then.

Today, trainers don’t swim with the animals, and the shows are more focused on teaching how these intelligent creatures exist in the open oceans — how they bond with their young, how they communicate with one another, and how they have learned to survive.

Blackfish has done a tremendous service in educating the public on the extraordinary abilities and intelligence of killer whales, and how they suffer when captured and confined in small tanks.

Because of Blackfish, trainers no longer get in the pools with the whales, or with the dolphins — although the animals are still trained to do jumps and tricks.

And yet SeaWorld is the first place called when marine animals in trouble need to be rescued or rehabilitated. The shows now emphasize this aspect of SeaWorld’s mission — but the shows, in the end, are for entertainment.

On the other hand (how many hands are there?), how does the zoo fit in? Doesn’t the zoo keep wild animals in cages, and charge admission, so the public can view them? Do we feel good about seeing tigers and lions pacing back and forth in their confined quarters?

The good work that SeaWorld does cannot be brushed aside. But do they really need to teach dolphins and whales to wave at the audience to get people to appreciate how amazing these mammals are?

Children need to learn how precious these animals are to our natural environment and how we humans have an obligation to protect their habitats, their lives and resources that sustain them. How best to teach that lesson going forward is complicated and elusive.

A look back

Education issues covered in previous 2019 columns included:

 The broad topic of ballot language legality and local school district General Obligation bonds — and whether the language used to write bonds presented to the public was biased in favor of passage (it was)

 The SOUL charter school renewal — and whether the county board of education failed in its duty to provide the fledging San Dieguito charter school with a well-deserved five-year extension (it did)

 A presentation by two students from the Parkland, Florida high school shooting — and whether they made a convincing case for gun control (they did)

 A discussion of LGBTQ issues — and whether the subject, particularly the “T” part, needs more public understanding (it does)

 A look at this year’s Comic-Con — and whether the future holds promise for expanding its educational panels (it does)

 A discussion of the state’s Ethnic Studies curriculum — and whether the controversial proposal needed an overhaul (it did)

 Exposure of San Dieguito Union High School District’s hidden agendas to build a new district office and approve the promotion and salary increase for Mark Miller — and whether these were designed to keep the public in the dark (they were)

 A number of new education-related laws signed this year by the governor — and whether they benefited kids (they did — except for the veto that would have mandated full-day kindergarten)

Although not specifically related to education, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 1184 which would have required public agencies to retain emails for a minimum of two years.

Had this bill been signed into law, the public benefit of greater transparency through access to public records would have been significant. Far too many public agencies, including school districts, delete emails somehow deemed unimportant or are simply trashed after a few months or a year.

Both criteria for deleting emails are subject to arbitrary judgments by public employees who should not be the ones guarding the henhouse.

Crazy for Nutcracker

On a personal note, thank you to Inspired Movement Dance studio for a fabulous Nutcracker production!

It was an honor to play the role of one of the parents in the Nutcracker party scene for the Rancho Santa Fe studio.

Even my husband, hardly the ballet aficionado, was astounded at the skill level exhibited by these young girls.

Congratulations to all IMD’s choreographers, directors, instructors and producers — including Robyn Segel-Shifren, Diana Nicastro, Noreen Nepomuceno, and Astrid Sherman.

And congratulations especially to Torrey Pines High School sophomore Jenna Renfield for dancer extraordinaire in the role of Clara.

— Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at