Editor’s Note: Here we take a look at candidate Birdi Olvarez-Kidwell who is running for the Area 4 seat on the Merced City School District’s Board of Education against incumbent trustee Emily Langdon.
Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell is a native Mercedian who found opportunity and success at a multinational corporation, and later returned to her hometown to raise a family and volunteer in classrooms and key committees in the Merced City School District (MCSD).
The 54-year-old Olivarez-Kidwell says she found herself in a position to step up and run for the Area 4 seat on the MCSD Board of Education as her youngest child entered high school and she started receiving strong encouragement from parents and teachers.
When the pandemic started to make international news in January, Olivarez-Kidwell said she started to notice all the signs that she had been trained to identify and plan for. The candidate worked for Visa International, Visa U.S.A. and Inovant LLC for 16 years, 1995-2011 (including the worldwide response to 9/11), and specialized in Risk Management and Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery.
“I started asking questions and no one had answers,” Olivarez-Kidwell says. “I started to think about a big population of Merced families with young students who were not going to be OK with what was happening very rapidly. Many parents are not tech-savvy. They may not have English as a first language. They may not have the resources to hire a tutor, or a child care provider, or create a specialized pod. An older sibling may have to take care of a younger sibling, and they may not be able to share distance learning in the same way. … I don’t think any of those concerns were brought forward from the start. They didn’t even have interpreters for those first meetings on the situation.”
With the idea that “failure to plan is planning to fail,” the candidate feels her management expertise can be of great value at this time. “We really need to get kids back in the classroom, but this virus isn’t going away,” she says. “How do we get them into class safely, and how do we make it so teachers feel safe? That’s a big issue right now and many teachers say their concerns are not being heard.”
Olivarez-Kidwell says she is running on a platform of “equity and excellence” in education. Equity, she says, is not necessarily making sure everybody is equal. “It’s making sure everybody has what they need.”
“I think the focus needs to be on the students who don’t have advocates. I feel like there are a lot parents who don’t know how to advocate for their children. In today’s schools, there are so many moving parts, so many assessments, so many expectations. I think students need somebody that’s listing to them. We need boots on the ground to help steer decisions and determine priorities. I think I can bring that perspective to the board position.”
The candidate is also calling for more transparency. “Let’s talk about the problems. Let’s talk to all the parents, not just a select group that are not representative of the entire student body. You will always have the most involved parents. We need to reach out to those parents who don’t know how to get involved. We need to have increased communication and collaboration on the board. Every stakeholder should be brought to the table and have their voices heard, and I’m not sure that’s happening right now.”
Besides COVID response, Olivarez-Kidwell understands the board’s main focus has been on literacy rates, but she says maybe it’s time to consider a different strategy.
“Teachers are working so hard. They are doing everything that is pushed on them to do, but the needle is not moving. Maybe a different approach is in order. Maybe talk to the teachers and find out what they think will work. Maybe bring the teachers in to determine what sorts of materials are selected. That’s really important. They are the ones face-to-face with the students, doing the work. …
“We need to look at the whole child, and the whole student, because we are not trying to pass students through these grades. We are looking at building our community. These are people who are going to be working here. They are going to be your doctors. They are going to be your firefighters. They are going to be your bank tellers. Our next mayor is probably in one of our schools right now. That to me is really important. It’s about the continuum of care, like they say in the medical field. I would love to see a hand off from Pre-K to T-K, from 6th grade to 7th grade, from 8th grade to high school, and then beyond. Planning for the student journey — that full life cycle — all the way through so that child feels invested in and guided. And we have to focus on whole families — not just the parents — because many of our caregivers are grandparents, aunts and uncles.”
Deep roots in region
Olivarez-Kidwell says she can help bridge the gap between “old Merced” and new professionals drawn to town by UC Merced and other opportunities. Her own story is one of a model young student from a family with deep roots in town who went off to college and landed a job with a big corporation.
The Olivarezes have been around the region since the early 1900s, and there are hundreds of family members living in the area. The candidate’s grandfather and great uncles helped start Club Mercedes back in the day in south Merced.
Olivarez-Kidwell attended Chenoweth and Charles Wright elementary schools, Tenaya Middle School, and Merced High School. She graduated in the Class of ’84. She immediately went to CSU Fresno and earned a B.A. in English Literature. Her goal was to return to Merced and become a teacher because she had a great experience there as a child. Not to mention, her mother worked as a classified employee at Chenoweth for 29 years.
However, life took her in another direction, and she ended up studying at San Francisco State University, where she completed an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts. Meanwhile, she wrote curriculum and taught at Peninsula YMCA, and then took a temp position for Visa International in San Mateo.
It was just a temp job checking badges at the entryway to the corporate offices, but she loved it and brought enthusiasm and positive energy to work day after day. One day the executive vice president of the company took notice of her eagerness to learn, and encouraged her to start thinking of the company as a possible career pathway.
Olivarez-Kidwell took up the offer and started a journey filled with promotion after promotion. She ended up as a global strategist in business continuity and disaster recovery planning.
She married Sean Kidwell (who is now an 8th grade teacher at Hoover School) and they decided to buy a home in Merced in 2000 to raise a family.
Her daughter Rhiannon was born on Sept. 11, 2000 — the day of the terrorist attacks on the East Coast. “It was frightening,” Olivarez-Kidwell said. “I was on maternity leave but I received a call from the senior vice president of VISA, and he told me to make plans to become an expert in business continuity.”
She worked for VISA and its various branches through 2010. In Merced, she was also a classroom volunteer and leader in the Parent Teacher Club from 2006-2017. She was part of the Measure M Political Action Committee in 2014. She sat on the Long Range Facilities Master Planning Committee from 2006 to 2020; and the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee (Measure S, Measure M) from 2008 to 2020.
Today, Olivarez-Kidwell has a 14-year-old son in Merced High School. Her daughter Rhiannon is biology student with the University of Arizona.
The candidate has received the endorsement of the Merced City Teachers Association and the California School Employees Association.