When Tokay High School students arrived for school last week,
the cool teacher with the blonde hair whom everyone knew wasn’t
Susan Brown, the woman at the center of Lodi Unified School
District’s years-long debate on senior projects, has quietly
But her personal mantra and what she has told thousands of
students through the years will surely live on: They can make
things happen, if they want.
Brown, whose brightly jeweled flower necklace harkens back to
the ’60s and reflects her colorful personality, has been known to
go against the system — but it was always for the sake of
When she found they were reading less and less, she petitioned
that unconventional titles on street gangs be allowed in the
Long before there were government-funded breakfast programs, she
brought donuts and milk to school to feed students who were hungry,
and found they responded better afterward.
When the district forbade teachers to speak to the media, Brown
embraced reporters and often went to them when she felt the public
needed to know what was going on.
And when “Schindler’s List” came out and she heard on the radio
a group of students from Oakland was getting free tickets, she
wrote a letter petitioning that her students receive the same and
Steven Speilberg’s assistant complied. Brown, who believed she was
the only Jewish teacher at Tokay High at the time, had her students
write about the portrayal.
After the News-Sentinel wrote an article about the assignment,
Brown heard from a Lodi resident who said she too was Jewish, but
was afraid to let people know.
Opportunities for all
As she begins to tell stories, it’s not surprising Brown is a
product of the 1960s. Or that she appeared in a documentary on the
decade protesting as a senior in high school that was shown in her
daughter’s college course in San Diego.
Or that she went on to attend University of California,
Or that she got into teaching at-risk students because her
father was in psychology and her uncle founded the first
continuation high school.
But Brown’s teaching career started at Elk Grove High School,
where she was an opportunity teacher alongside Odie Douglas, who
had the same position. He is now an assistant superintendent for
Their principal was former superintendent Bill Huyett.
But the position was on a temporary contract and it soon
It was 1984 when she saw on the TV news that Lodi Unified was
looking for teachers.
Looking back, Brown admits she didn’t immediately fill out the
application. But when she did, it was only a few weeks until former
administrator Jimmie Jordan offered her a job working with at-risk
For half of the school day, they were placed in Brown’s
self-contained classroom to learn core subjects like math and
English. It was challenging, she said, as the IQ levels varied as
much as the students; there were those who needed remedial work,
while others didn’t perform simply because they were bored with
regular schoolwork and needed something more engaging.
Nonetheless, she was able to reach most of them. When she took
them to a faculty meeting, they confessed they loved school again
because of Brown’s class.
Five years later she moved to Liberty High School.
It was there she helped publish books of student poetry and
oversaw a series of newspaper columns on the school.
It was also there she literally caught students stealing. When
someone said they had taken Walkmans, she jumped in her car and
gave chase, following only the distinct sound of the other
vehicle’s muffler. She is, after all, a car enthusiast, too.
Brown got the vehicle’s license plate number and turned it over
to Lodi police, and after a trial the students were convicted.
As the school’s opportunity teacher, she also acted as a mom,
she said. Not only did she provide needy students with food, she
bought them prom dresses and interview attire.
There was the time she was asked to give a eulogy at the
memorial service of students killed when their vehicle plunged off
Devil’s Slide in Daly City. All the driver wanted to do was show
his friend the Pacific Ocean, since she had never seen it.
Brown can still remember the victims’ first and last names.
Making a difference
While teaching at Liberty, she decided her students could make a
difference by adopting a street and keeping it clean. After two
years of petitioning the city, they were assigned Lodi Avenue —
from beginning to end — and the group celebrated at Taco Bell, on
In 1999, she left and went to Tokay High School, where she had
longtime friends in the English department. She said she wanted to
see if she could teach “normal” students.
Brown said students rioted at Liberty when they found out she
was leaving. It was, after all, where she had put her heart and
But at Tokay, she fell in love with senior projects, where she
saw doubting students turn out amazing project after amazing
“I saw them as positive community involvement and job
exploration,” she said.
At the end of the year, Brown paid for a catered reception and
invited the district’s top brass. She is proud to say that Tokay
boasted the lowest number of students who didn’t graduate because
they had not completed their senior projects.
Despite Brown’s efforts, the school board voted in 2010 to
eliminate the graduation requirement based partly on a lack of
funding and at the recommendation of the Superintendent’s Budget
Advisory Committee. It’s a decision that still raises her
She points to the $15,000 the district paid to get the program
nationally certified and the districts that mirrored their programs
after Lodi Unified’s.
Then there are the students: The one who learned about dentistry
and ended up becoming a dentist, or the one who wanted to find out
how swimming pools were built and ended up being hired by a local
contractor because he pitched in and helped during his observation
Last spring, before trustees voted to axe it, Brown organized a
display of senior projects showcasing what she felt were the best
over the years. Many included bringing awareness to organizations
such as the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
“We’ve raised thousands of dollars for charity,” Brown said, her
voice raising just a bit to show frustration.
She also personally started the Michael Preston Scholarship in
1991, which has allowed high school seniors to purchase textbooks
and other items for college. Named for her late uncle, Brown
estimates she’s paid out $20,000 over the years to hand-picked
That’s in addition to the thousands spent on outfitting students
with pencils, binders, paper and more. She once moved a struggling
student who had lost her parents into her Elk Grove home, but it
only lasted a couple of months before the girl had to return to
Mary Graham Hall.
In recent years, Brown began to teach special education students
immersed in regular courses. When 10th graders were added to her
ninthand 12th-grade charges, she added projects to their
curriculum. For example, when the class read “Jurassic Park,” she
had students design theme parks.
She’s had others make mini-movies or paint murals of book
“It was neat to do things other than writing the typical threeto
five-paragraph essay,” Brown said, pausing before continuing. The
only sound that could be heard was the gurgle of her backyard koi
pond, another product of the senior projects she fought hard to
keep. When a student wanted to learn more about ornamental ponds,
Brown let him work on hers.
She quickly jumps up and runs inside her two-story house to grab
some of her favorite student artwork. There’s a surrealism canvas
painting and another sketched on a discarded cardboard box, likely
because the student didn’t have the money to buy art supplies.
One of those students became a graphic designer and still calls
While she keeps in touch with many former students, she admits
she discourages recent graduates from going into teaching because
of the politics, she said, adding that she purchased countless
school supplies for students over the years.
“I couldn’t afford to work anymore,” Brown added. “I don’t envy
people who come into teaching now.”
It’s less about teaching and more about teaching to a
standardize test, she said. “What matters now? Students can’t read,
but they can score on a test and raise APIs.”
Brown wishes teachers could get back to teaching the basics like
reading and writing in small learning communities.
‘A better person’
Brown, who served as Tokay High’s California Scholarship
Federation co-adviser, has received her share of recognition
throughout the years, including being named a News-Sentinel
Classroom Hero in 2009.
The nomination letter by former student Jamie Hendricks summed
up the heart Brown has had for those she taught.
“I struggled in school with an unbearable home life and I lived
on the streets most of my high school years. Mrs. Brown took me
under her wing and gave me the support I needed. I was like most
kids from Liberty High in that we were all troubled in some way.
Mrs. Brown treated us all equally. She brought out the best in
everyone,” Hendricks wrote.
“She would spend countless hours counseling students. If we were
hungry, she would give us food, if we were crying she would hug us
and tell us everything would be OK. She even took me clothes
shopping so I could have decent clothes for job interviews. If it
weren’t for Mrs. Brown, I probably would have never graduated and
received my high school diploma. I still think about this great
woman. The compassion she taught me has carried on in my life. I am
a better person because of her,” she continued.
For Brown, school became a place of respite where she didn’t
mind going from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. In recent years, she held a
breakfast club in her classroom right off the school library.
Students would come in before school to do homework, play music or
just hang out.
As senior project coordinator, she said she came across all
kinds of students, like the class clown who joined the
Then there was the students caught plagiarizing for whom she’d
come up with an additional essay topic. She had one she instructed
to write a paper comparing Julia Child to a modern chef. The
student came back to thank her because he had learned so much.
“Along the way, you come across these brilliant students,” said
Brown, who recently lost her husband and now helps care for her
young grandchildren. “Maybe I should have stayed. I have a few
years left in me. But I snuck out of there.”
From the look on her face, it is apparent Brown felt conflicted
about leaving. Tokay principal Erik Sandstrom told her she had
until July 15 to make her final decision. She called him on July 11
with the news.
She left behind more than half a dozen filing cabinets of
curriculum for her replacement.
In retirement, the eclectic Brown said she’s going to write a
book about everything she’s learned and everyone famous she’s
There’s the time when she attended a political rally in her
native Oakland, where her father was a city councilman, and she
shook hands with George Romney, long before his son Mitt ran for
president. She was in high school.
In college, her friend and former beauty queen went to a San
Francisco Giants game where Roberto Clemente stole a look at her
friend. He invited them to dinner with the team, and the two dated
for awhile. She still remembers they ordered roast beef
While student-teaching in Mill Valley, Brown found a
second-grader smoking pot in the bathroom. When she demanded to
know where he got the joint, he admitted it came from his father,
In the meantime, she’s content to reminisce about her
decades-long career and the students who touched her heart.
“I always worked the room like a cocktail party,” she said of
her teaching style. “I walked around and got to know everyone.”
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.