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Mick Founts has drive to help kids — human and goat

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Posted: Saturday, December 17, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:36 am, Sat Dec 17, 2011.

On a recent afternoon, Mick Founts, the San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools, the holder of a doctoral degree in education, a top regional educator who supervises more than 1,000 employees and a budget of nearly $130 million, was not in his spacious office, behind his massive desk.

He was cradling a baby goat.

"Isn't she cute?" he cooed.

Across the yard, a 300-pound male goat named Little Ripper aggressively gnashed his horns against what was left of a sheet of plywood used as siding for a small barn.

"Oh, he did all that himself. We'll put up a new one soon, and he can get started tearing that to pieces," Founts said. Founts is a man of varied and passionate interests. He is a driven, some say visionary educator. A family man. And a man with an affinity for goats.

He keeps many of them at a family property near Manteca. He has ultimate responsibility for another goat operation that is run by the office of education he oversees.

Moving easily through the maze

The county office of education in south Stockton is a maze, but Founts moved through it with ease.

He hustled through the halls of the county's biggest charter school (located on the office grounds) greeting students and teachers by name and checking in on their projects. The charter, Venture Academy Family of Schools, is a laboratory in a sense. Founts sees it as a picture of what county educators think schools should look like.

"We get the same or less funding as a district, we just choose to do it a little differently," said Founts, walking briskly from one wing to the next long hallway. One room held a high tech 3D printer and laser cutter. Another featured floor-to-ceiling mirrors so dance students could work on their steps.

Kids in the Venture Academy have the option of earning college credits by taking online courses through Grand Canyon University in Arizona, which Founts says weighs more heavily on a college application than a high GPA.

"I'm not a big fan of grades. I think grades encourage mediocrity," he said. "Rewriting, redoing. That's what I'd rather see."

Founts recalled an English teacher in high school who refused to put a letter grade on an assignment until it was worth an A.

"That's where I learned the idea is to get it done right, not just to get it done," he said.

Nor is he a fan of standardized testing.

"The whole push for accountability being diminished to a single test score has taken away from the depth and breadth of education," he said.

But in his line of work, it's hard to avoid. Luckily, he's not the only educator in line with this vision.

Kathleen Focacci, director of Venture Academy, met Founts while both were working for the Lodi Unified School District at the Lodi Adult School. Focacci was an administrator for pregnant teens or teen parents. Founts worked on the same site operating a community school classroom.

When a position opened up with the county, Founts persuaded Focacci to come aboard. She said she's seen him as a mentor and a friend ever since.

Focacci calls Founts instrumental in starting up Venture Academy, and the pair wrote the charter together.

"He's a visionary with a tremendous amount of passion, making sure all kids are served in a way that helps them be successful," she said.

Upstairs from the charter, Founts' office is encircled with bookshelves holding paintings and other artwork created by students. Instead of remaining stuffed behind the massive desk in the corner, Founts more often spreads out his work on the large table in the center of the room.

Directly opposite from the entrance is a Christmas tree covered in Oakland Raiders fan memorabilia.

As a kid, Founts was a diehard San Francisco 49ers fan. But one evening in a Fresno grocery store, Founts and his dad saw a table of Raiders players selling milk to help promote their team.

"There was no one in line. Who would be?" asked Founts, laughing.

When the boy approached the football players, they answered his questions about the game and took a little time to get to know him. He's been a convert ever since.

The push and pull between the outdoors and a classroom environment has been a part of Founts' identity for years.

In high school, Founts reveled in the contrast between his growing love of literature and his passion for playing football. He graduated from Humboldt State University in 1976 with a degree in teacher education.

His first teaching job was at his alma mater, Manteca High School. At 21 years old, he also coached wrestling, football and one of the first girl's strength-training courses in the area.

But his first day on the job as an administrator was a little more tense. Founts was working at the Elliot Alternative Education Center in Modesto, which serves as a continuation school, runs Regional Occupational Programs, and houses adult and at-risk students. As assistant principal in charge of discipline, Founts' responsibilities kicked in when he got a report of a 792 over the radio. Looking frantically at his cheat sheet, Founts realized that was code for a man brandishing a handgun.

"So I shouted back, 'Is that a man with a gun?!' and they said, 'Use the code!'" Founts recalled.

His career path has led him to deal with kids on the fringe of school and of society. Founts tends to shy away from the "at-risk" label. In his mind, all kids are at risk, because it's impossible to know what life circumstances could crop up. Instead, he tries to look at each student as an individual.

The whole office knows when Founts has a new idea on the brain.

"When he says, 'I have an opportunity for you,' you know that it's going to mean more work," Focacci said. "But it will also benefit a lot of kids."

Where the goats come in

But how exactly did goats come into the picture?

"It started out as just a fun little hobby," said Founts' daughter, Rashonne Founts, 20, who raised her first goat for show when she was nine years old. The goat won first place, but when the little girl found out her pet was going to be sold for meat at an auction, she begged Founts to buy it back to the tune of $200.

The project grew into two goats, then four, then eight. One day, Founts and Rashonne Founts headed to the backyard of their Manteca ranch with trimming hooves on the agenda, to realize they had a herd of nearly 300 animals on their hands.

"It was a shock to both of us," she said.

The father-daughter duo regularly travel around the state and as far as Texas and Idaho to show Boer goats they have bred and raised at Biggy Farms, their family-owned Boer goat ranch. (Founts' wife, Kristin, teaches at Tracy High School.)

Founts' competitive nature, honed during his years on the high school gridiron, drives him to seek out the best breeding traits in his animals and train them with determination. Interestingly, Founts has never tasted goat meat. Both Rashonne Founts and sister Larissa Founts are vegetarians.

Rashonne Founts enjoys the road trips with her dad and inevitable shenanigans that crop up when caring for the goats and prepping them for shows.

"We'll be running around trying to catch a goat, until one of us falls. Then we're angry until we start laughing hysterically," she said. It's not uncommon for the pair to stock up on junk food and make a 24-hour trek to a show in Texas.

Father and daughter are clearly close. Each speaks joyfully about the other.

"The number one thing we both share a huge passion for is taking activities that aren't normally in the classroom and bringing in English, history, math and science," she said. "We can talk about it for hours."

That passion is how the Boer goat breeding program came to Durham Ferry Outdoor School in Manteca, overseen by the office of education.

When Rashonne Founts was in high school, she was frustrated that her Advanced Placement classes prevented her from taking any FFA classes. She and her dad brainstormed for ways to connect the two worlds. In the end, they designed a course that did just that.

It's part of the Venture Academy Family of Schools, and it focuses on connecting hands-on agriculture and farm work to standard curriculum requirements. Students learn geography by following the historical path of the breed from South Africa, and genetics by studying how a baby goat's features can sometimes be predicted based on its parents. The point is for students to see connections.

"You're going to have some great experiences with babies living, and you're going to have some sad experiences when they don't. At the end of the day, you've got to love doing the work. You have to love the process. That's so valuable in what makes us human beings," said Founts.

The school runs a 4-H club to bring students into the full circle of breeding, raising, showing and selling Boer goats. Each year, Founts and Rashonne Founts, along with other Durham Ferry teachers, take a group of students to state livestock shows.

In one memorable round, a student led in a 200-pound goat to show. Before she got started, two sheep got loose from their pen and charged her as she stood frozen in the ring, determined to stand her ground. In the shuffle, her own goat got loose, too, forcing her to chase it down. In the end, she had been trampled by the animals and was covered in bruises and dust.

"I looked her in the eye and said, 'Honey, you don't have to go back in that ring.' But she dusted herself off and said, 'Stand back. I'm going in," Founts recalled, shaking his head in wonder.

"At the end of the day, I don't know how many of these kids are going to be involved in agriculture, but they'll never forget overcoming adversity," he said.

There's another project in Founts' back pocket. In his backyard (far away from the goats) there sits a tall, dusty Victorian home originally built in 1865.

It wasn't built in Founts' backyard, however. It was cut into three massive pieces on its original site on the historic French Camp Road and moved on trucks to its current location.

That was six years ago.

"I thought we'd be done in a year. So much for that," he said with a grin. Founts thrives on unveiling an old house's gorgeous features, picking up forgotten pieces on his travels, and finding what fits in a new place. A pair of stained glass windows were salvaged from a house slated for destruction. A weather bar counter was rescued from a thrift store.

It's a little like the way he finds students and matches them with places where they fit. And if there isn't one available, it's likely Founts will just come up with something new to fit the bill.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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