New Dunn School Leader Reinvisions Santa Barbara County as Inclusion Lab

By Nick Masuda   |   June 3, 2021

Kalyan Balaven isn’t slated to start his job as Head of School at Dunn until July 1 — but it feels like he has been around for months.

That’s because he has.

He’s not only utilizing this time to acclimate his wife and two children to the area, but also establish a rapport with the community that can aid in his ultimate vision — “you can’t wait for the first day to build relationships,” he said.

Known as a champion of inclusion in the education realm — even quantifying it for those administrators and boards looking to make data-based decisions — Balaven sat down with James Joyce (host of Coffee with a Black Guy; 2021 Santa Barbara mayoral candidate) on May 20 in an event put on by the Endowment for Youth Committee at the Lobero Theatre, with the theme of “Inclusion as a Model for Building Resilient Communities.”

For Balaven, that community isn’t confined to the walls of Dunn School, but instead to all of Santa Barbara County, where best practice lessons can be shared, if he has his way.

To that end, Balaven’s personal mission is a fairly simple one.

“No student sitting in our schools should be sitting in class, the playground, wherever, feeling like they don’t belong,” said Balaven, who studied at UC Berkeley as an undergrad.

This was borne out of a childhood where he saw his mother educate children in their community — after a long day in the classroom. She knew that not every student had access to the same resources, so she provided her home as a pseudo equalizer.

“My education in inclusion began in my education of exclusion,” Balaven said.

This wasn’t lost over time for Balaven, even as he chased a law degree at UC Davis. He knew it wasn’t the right fit but finished because “he didn’t want to be defeated.”

He practiced law for a while, aiding in prisons and immigration, navigating the pre-existing system wrought with issues that even “hard work couldn’t change.”

Balaven was also using part of his days teaching, a “transformative” experience that captured his heart.

“I could make greater change class by class, and not case by case,” he said.

And now that quest for change comes to Santa Barbara County, although one question came via Zoom wondering if Balaven’s ideas of mass inclusion and commitment to individuality was “too radical” for a place like Santa Barbara.

In his eyes, it’s as easy as self-reflection, challenging each person to remember a time when they were excluded — a feeling that he believes no one wants to experience, and therefore can work in tandem to rid schools of it.

“Start there; that’s not revolutionary,” he said.

“If we can be so empathic that we understand that everyone in the classroom, in the school, needs to be taken care of, needs to be seen, heard, valued . . . if we can do that, if they can feel included in the promise of whatever mission the school said it was doing, that’s beautiful. It seems insurmountable, but it’s possible. Why do I know it’s possible? Because everyone can point to a teacher that impacted them.”

Balaven’s track record of success in the Bay Area — with his first inclusion retreats reaching six or seven schools, but the latest inclusive of 125-plus schools — shows that he backs up his talking with plenty of walking.

And he’s already toying with a concept that would branch out to all county schools that want to participate — the Inclusion Lab.

In the figurative lab, experimentation would be paramount, with Balaven’s hypothesis that every school has something that another can learn from.

It would be built on partnerships, a readiness to share stories and data, allowing the county to focus on individualized attention that students crave — with Balaven pointing to the rise in popularity of TikTok and Instagram as examples.

He believes that between K-12 schools, both public and private, as well as local universities that step in, sharing — not competing for — resources can create ample opportunities for students to thrive.

“We will compete in football, in softball, in different sports, in debate, in spelling bees, we even compete in enrollment. But we can’t compete in inclusion, because when we compete in inclusion, that’s exclusion,” Balaven said.

The past 15 months have given schools across the county a chance to reflect, with Balaven believing that innovation should be paramount to the next step — and it’s a fairly simple concept, make sure students are seen and heard, as there’s a new attitude in education.

“You got Google, you got Wikipedia, YouTube videos — I don’t need the teacher in the classroom to teach me anymore, but I need the teacher to see me, the teacher to hear me, to know who I am.”


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