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 Getting to Know SDCOE: New Director Looks to Build on Success

portrait of Bruce Petersen at deskNew Momentum Learning Senior Director Bruce Petersen started his career as a probation officer in a maximum-security probation camp in Los Angeles County. Kids were angry and resentful, and he wasn’t fond of the work. Then, he earned his teacher credential and joined the staff of the school side of the same camp.

Everything changed. “It was an amazing transition from probation. It was just a flip of the switch,” Petersen explained. “On the teacher side, kids looked up to you. These were the same kids, but on a different side of the camp. Kids had a totally different relationship and outlook with you.”

Still, something was missing. The recidivism rate among former students was troubling, and he wanted to find a way to focus on prevention. The effort found him with the dawn of alternative education in the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). A colleague was tasked with starting a new division for alternative education, and Petersen was tapped to help open one of the first community schools in the state.

“It was craziness at first,” Petersen said. “But we got it turned around into a model school. We got to train the first generation of alternative education teachers.”

He went on to become a principal and then a regional director for LACOE, before leaving for the Riverside County Office of Education four years ago for an administrator position. It was a time of transition for California education, with the arrival of the Local Control Funding Formula and the accompanying Local Control and Accountability Plan, in addition to the new Smarter Balanced student assessments.

“Riverside is much smaller than LACOE, with a small central office,” he said. “You had to do everything, and I learned it backward and forward. For my personal growth, it was outstanding.”

Now, the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) will benefit from Petersen’s years of experience and knowledge. Petersen has had his eye on San Diego for some time. No, it wasn’t just the weather. In his experience as a board member with the Juvenile Court, Community, and Alternative School Administrators of California, he saw SDCOE’s court and community schools as a highintegrity program.

“I’m very excited to be working with Executive Director Tracy Thompson, Assistant Superintendent Don Buchheit, and the whole team to build on what’s already been a successful program,” Petersen said. “I want to reposition us for the next generation so that our programs are situated for financial and academic stability for the future.”

For Petersen, the timing was right personally and professionally when the senior director position opened. With his three children grown, he felt comfortable making the move from the San Gabriel Valley. Don Buchheit, assistant superintendent for Student Services and Programs, calls Petersen a perfect fit for SDCOE. 

“He has committed his life to improving the lives of students in community and court schools,” Buchheit said. “He’s spent his career making a difference in the lives of students, their families, and educators.”

SDCOE's Momentum Learning schools serve school-age youth who are either wards of the court or have been referred by social services, probation, or a school district. Education is provided to incarcerated youth, pregnant minors, youth in foster care, expelled teens, chronically truant youth, students in drug treatment centers and group homes for neglected or abused children, and youth experiencing homelessness.