Joni Samples – Making A Difference In Education


Dr. Joni Samples knew from the age of 7 that she wanted to teach, inspired by stories that her mother, an elementary school teacher, would tell her after school each day. Joni’s passion for education led to a long career as a teacher, administrator and superintendent of schools.

After being retired from the public sector “for something like 20 minutes,” Joni asked herself what was next and decided that she was most interested in helping families help children learn. She is now Chief Academic Officer at Family Friendly Schools, an organization helping schools across the country engage with families.

“For whatever reason, a divide has been created between home and school, with fear on both sides. When the fear barriers break down and families begin to connect to the school, the changes that can be made are amazing – there’s mutual collaboration and support for the kids learning,” Joni explains.

art-215-btc1Much of her work takes place in impoverished school districts, where families may not have access to the same resources that more affluent communities offer. With a bit of effort to bridge the divide between home and school there has been wonderful engagement between schools, families and communities. The idea is to build trust by working on hands-on projects and later moving on to educational issues. Projects have included turning old school buses into mobile libraries and rebuilding a crumbling fence on a high school’s baseball diamond.

Although Title I legislation requires that schools in poor areas initiate parental engagement programs, Joni feels that family engagement is needed everywhere. “It changes the parent as well as the school staff, by changing their attitudes,” Joni says. “It’s worthwhile and fun work.”

Joni was inspired to focus on the family-school connection through her experiences as a special education teacher. Although her students had challenges preventing them from attending regular classes, Joni noticed many were brilliant in their own ways and very upbeat. Despite difficulties in their lives, the children’s families valued education. One family’s house burned down, but the child was at school the next day. “Having engaged parents with a good attitude towards school made a huge difference in the child’s ability to thrive,” says Joni.

Education was always a priority when Joni was growing up. Having a teacher for a mother sparked her interest in the field. Her father also highly valued education; he had quit high school to join the army and felt it was extremely important for his kids to have opportunities that he didn’t. When Joni completed her doctorate in education at Northern Arizona University – as the second woman to complete the program – she dedicated her doctoral dissertation to him.

art-215-btc2Joni moved to the North State with her family in the 1980s to work as assistant superintendent of schools in Glenn County. A few years later she moved to Chico to be closer to her daughter and her church community. Joni has four children – twin sons James and Christopher, daughters Jennifer and Carolyn, and six grandchildren. Her sons serve in the Air Force, and Carolyn is following in her mother and grandmother’s footsteps, having just finished her teaching credential in special education. Carolyn regularly calls Joni for advice and to discuss things happening in her classroom, just as Joni used to do with her own mother.

When she isn’t working, Joni enjoys reading, is active in her church, and loves spending time with her 5-year-old granddaughter. She also serves on two boards and works with World Academy for the Future of Women to empower young women in China and other developing countries.

And Joni isn’t finished in the classroom. Now she teaches senior citizens at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at California State University, Chico. “I just love to teach.  It’s a passion,” Joni says.

It’s clear Joni’s love for education and dedication to making a positive difference for children and families has had a big impact on others. Don Converse, who has worked with Joni at Family Friendly Schools, has nothing but admiration for her.  “Not only has Joni made a positive change in our community. She is also well respected in local education and across the country. She is inspirational, and at the same time she’s down to earth. She is one of those people who comes into your life and changes it. That’s the kind of person that we should all aspire to be.” 

Joni can be contacted at Family Friendly Schools, (530) 899-8423.

[sws_grey_box box_size=”585″]The mission of our Be the Change column is to feature community members from the North State who are actively making a difference in community life. If you would like to nominate someone who is making a difference, please write to [/sws_grey_box]

About Phoenix Lawhon Isler

Phoenix Lawhon Isler lives in Mount Shasta with her husband and daughter. She has spent much of her life as a student but decided a PhD was a good stopping point.

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