Editor’s Note: Here we take a look at incumbent candidate Emily Langdon who is running for re-election in the race for the Area 4 seat on the Merced City School District (MCSD) Board of Education. Her challenger is Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell.
Emily Langdon is a parent and longtime educator with an impressive amount of experience in leadership development and the field of Student Affairs at the university level, including at UC Merced.
The 54-year-old Langdon is also the incumbent Area 4 trustee on the Board of Education for the Merced City School District (MCSD). In 2016, she won a close race against well-known administrator Tom Parker, and then quickly became known as the leader on the dais who always comes to meetings prepared and poised to ask a lot of questions.
“I would walk to may car after a meeting, and sometimes I would be wondering if I did enough homework or asked the right questions, and then a parent would come up to me, and say: ‘Thank you for speaking up because we had no idea what was going on,’” Langdon recalls. “I kept getting affirmation that I was on the right path.”
She faced a steep learning curve in her first year as she visited every school site in the district and met with parents, teachers and administrators. Gradually, however, she says the board grew more unified during this time, and the emphasis shifted from successfully raising student attendance rates to improving literacy rates.
The focus on literacy is a mission Langdon cares deeply about, and she says despite the incredible challenges 2020 has brought on, she wants to continue on this path with “razor sharp focus.”
“We need to establish the relationships necessary to ensure more children are reading at grade level,” she says. “I will work on leveraging my relationships to promote literacy. There are great things happening all over Merced. We need to collaborate to make all those efforts pay off for our kids. We need every child to get a County Library card and see that community asset as their own. We need to build and stock little libraries all over town, where kids are able to access them and get books — books that reflect their experiences, their hopes and dreams, stories they recognize and resonate with. We need to encourage service and philanthropy clubs to do book drives to support literacy and reading programs. …
“Merced as an entire community needs to double down on early reading. It will support math skills (numeracy) too as many math problems are now word problems and children are asked to explain their answers, which develops critical thinking skills. …
The board member adds, “Young children need to learn to read early or their options are dramatically reduced in life. Seven out of 10 of our children are not reading at grade level. That’s on us. You can pull up the district on the California Dashboard and it lights up in red, orange and maybe yellow, and that’s not OK. … Our education system is one of the best chances students have to change their family circumstances. I think we all feel like so much is riding on this.”
That said, Langdon says she and her colleagues this year continue to confront the incredible challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the district.
“When the coronavirus hit, we went to distance learning the best we could,” she says. “We got the devices in the kids’ hands, and we tried to be kind to the students, parents and teachers. … Our teachers pivoted, our district invested in technology, and the school year started as well as can be expected. There were glitches, there will be more, and no one thinks distance learning is ideal. This has been so stressful on so many, but we are a resilient community. We need to get through this, and get to the other side intact. …
“We are going to open the schools because the kids need it, and many families are not managing this well,” she says. “We need to get the teachers back to doing what they do very well in the best environment. We have to be really smart and keep them safe. We have a population in our community where these kids don’t get another chance. This is their chance. …
“Additionally, moving forward, we will need to spend time and money on what they are calling ‘learning loss’ in this pandemic. We need to meet kids where they are and invest in them so the achievement gaps we are seeing get addressed.”
Looking back at her first term, Langdon says she is proud the board worked to bring back opportunities for students at Camp Green Meadows. The Gifted and Talented Education or GATE program was expanded and made more accessible for families across the city. The board shined a brighter light on STEAM and Montessori programs available to all students. And a new dialogue with the Black Parallel School Board was encouraged to study issues — not through a social economic status lens, but through an “equity” lens.
Journey To Merced
Emily Langdon was born in Illinois, but raised in California. Her dad sold concrete paving equipment and moved around a bit for work. Nevertheless, the family settled down in Fresno during Langdon’s elementary and high school years. She graduated from Bullard High School in 1984.
She attended UC Davis and earned a degree in International Relations, but it was there where she also discovered that she could pursue a career that would keep her on a college campus — something she thought was wonderful. So she entered the field of Student Affairs, and entered a masters program in College Student Personnel Administration at Colorado State University. She would eventually earn a doctorate in Higher Education and Organizational Change from UCLA.
Her career progressed as a Student Affairs leader, researcher and educator at several colleges and universities, including Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Mount St. Mary’s College, St. Norbert College, Chatham College, and Miami University of Ohio.
She met her husband Charles Nies while they worked on a leadership development program together. They were married in 2003, and around that time, they started hearing news about the 10th UC campus being built in Merced.
The news was music to Langdon’s ears because she was itching leave the cold Midwest and get back to sunny California and the Central Valley where she felt more at home. The couple also welcomed their first child, Julia, in the world.
When the fledgling, two-year-old UC Merced posted a Dean of Students position, Langdon told her husband: “Get that job!”
Nies interviewed for the position when the campus by the lake pretty much consisted of the library and a parking lot, and that’s about it. He later called Langdon from the Bear Creek Inn, where he was staying, and said: “Have you ever been to Merced?”
Langdon replied, “Yes … Just get the job … We will figure it out.”
Neis did get the job, but the move was complicated because Langdon was pregnant with their second child. And when their daughter, Renee, was born, unfortunately she was diagnosed with severe polycystic kidney disease.
Langdon describes the following months as a dark chapter in their family life. Renee had her kidneys removed at 6 months old, and she was on dialysis for 22 months. However, in 2008, the youngster received a transplant from a former student of her husband’s. With the support Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera and Stanford University, their future in Merced grew brighter.
Meanwhile, her husband was doing well with his new job.
“He realized the enormity of building a University of California campus from the ground up. You don’t get chances like this in any other of these roles at other places. No other vice chancellor of Student affairs gets to cut the ribbon on so many buildings. It’s this transformational opportunity. And it’s transforming Merced.”
As her daughter’s condition improved, Langdon took on work, 40 percent of the time, as a UC Merced Student Affairs assessment coordinator in 2010. She also went into teaching a management program on Organization Behavior and Leadership Theory.
When her children started in local public schools, Langdon volunteered in the classroom, including at Chenoweth where Renee was doing well and excelling. Then one day in 2015, she heard from a teacher that students were going to be moved to other schools in a MCSD board move to even out district boundaries.
“I went to the board meeting as a concerned parent. I listened to all these parents speak at the podium and I watched the leadership of the district. It was like they already decided they were going to move these boundaries. And the people had good questions. And I just felt like this was not a dialogue. This was not up for discussion and the stakeholders were not being heard. I got really mad and then I started really listening and these people were really scared. I was then struck less about the implications of the boundary move and more about the families. I went to that meeting worried about my kid, and I left that meeting worried about my community. It was like this is bigger than me … and you don’t know you as a parent. You have a child, and they have their circle of friends, and their teachers, and you think the top of the food chain must be the principal. But then you find out about the board and the district … and the machine behind it.”
The next year Langdon ran for a seat on the board and won.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says with a smile. “In 2016, on the campaign trail, voters would say that I had a ‘dog in the fight,’ but my now girls have moved on to high school, and so I have no one left connected to the MSC district. Yet, at my New Board member orientation I learned that I did not just serve the kids in Area 4, where I was elected, I serve all 11,000 kids in MCSD. … I want to continue my commitment to creating and supporting the educational environments so every students’ needs are met, so every student is able to thrive. … Re-elect me and I will do just that.”