Joe Dana jokes that the familiar, calming views of rolling hills and grazing horses are enough reason to travel thousands of miles among Orcutt Union School District sites.
Those close to Dana, the Orcutt district’s director of charter programs, know the lighthearted remark is driven by much more.
Beyond all else, the 47-year-old Dana strives to offer students the best education possible in the same school district in which he grew up.
He starts his days overseeing operations at the K-8 Orcutt Academy charter school in Casmalia, traveling then to be principal at Olga Reed Elementary in Los Alamos, and back to the district office in Old Town Orcutt for more administrative work.
Some of Dana’s colleagues say it’s no coincidence that the number of applicants to the district’s charter program — which includes Casmalia, Orcutt Academy High School and Independent Study — has increased in the two years since Dana took on the role.
Dana’s silver sedan, a district-owned car, is always one of the last ones to leave the district parking lot. He put 12,000 miles on that car last year.
“I’m proud of that,” Dana joked last week in his district office.
After moving to refill a Styrofoam cup with Diet Pepsi — the drink that “keeps him going” — Dana said he sees nothing extraordinary about his dedication to a district where he has worked for 22 years.
He loves the district and the Central Coast area where his family has lived for five generations.
He returned to the area and worked as a news editor and sports editor for the Santa Maria Times before meeting his wife in 1988 and deciding to stick around town.
“I’m a small-town guy,” Dana said.
Dana took night classes to get his teaching certificate, and taught fifth grade at Joe Nightingale Elementary before moving into a vice principal and then principal role.
“I never had any ambition of becoming an administrator,” Dana said. “I love this school district. I love the people in it.”
Superintendent Bob Bush said Dana was a natural choice to take over the leadership role at four schools.
“He’s a people person,” Bush said. “He has lots of compassion for teachers and kids. He really shares my concern about education and wanting to do what’s right. Joe’s just done an outstanding job.”
Dana’s longtime friend and co-worker, Jan Yanagisako, assistant superintendent of human resources, said she has admired Dana since he started teaching.
She’s also been impressed with the love he shows for his family, which includes his wife of more than 20 years, Angie, a 14-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.
“He was such an incredible teacher,” Yanagisako said. “He has such a sharp mind. I just admire him and his ability to think through issues.”
Dana said he plans to work in the district for a long time.
He jokes that he hasn’t pressured either of his kids to go to Orcutt Academy — yet.
“I’m planning to be here forever,” he said, noting a genuine love of his job. “It’s about kids. I’m very passionate about the Orcutt Academy.”