Kathryn Dronenburg; education official, phonics advocate

By Jack Williams


March 12, 2002

Kathy Cuvala Dronenburg

(Union-Tribune photo courtesy of Patrick Chambers, '60)

She championed phonics as a foundation for reading skills. She urged a return to fundamentals in mathematics. And she gave voice to the needs of special education students.

As a member for 11 years of the state Board of Education, Kathryn Dronenburg rallied others to her cause with the concern of a parent and the savvy of a veteran teacher and reading specialist.

Mrs. Dronenburg, the wife of 3rd District county Board of Education member Ernest Dronenburg, died Saturday at her El Cajon home. She was 55.

The cause of death was cancer, which was diagnosed in December 1999, her husband said.

"Kathy was a strong advocate for making changes in our educational system that would make our schools better for kids," said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, former president of the California School Boards Association. "She was one of East County's finest, with a deep compassion for children and her family."

Long before her term on the state Board of Education expired last March, Mrs. Dronenburg saw one of her goals realized when phonics replaced the whole language theory as a teaching tool in California public schools.

She had led the opposition in the mid-1990s to the concept of whole language, whose advocates believe books with pictures and whole words are better than simple, direct instruction in phonics.

Phonics teaches children to read by sounding out words through drill and repetition. Phonics was adopted by the state board in1999, with Mrs. Dronenburg providing impetus as head of the curriculum subcommittee.

In September 1995, a special state reading task force cited whole language as the reason for abysmal reading test scores by California students. On a National Assessment of Educational Progress test, California public school students tied for last with Louisiana in reading skills.

Mrs. Dronenburg's work in preparing a reading initiative and setting language arts standards was acknowledged with a certificate of appreciation from Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction, and then-Board of Education president Robert Trigg.

"Kathy was a zealot on the first three years of education," said Yvonne Larsen, a former colleague on the state Board of Education. "She believed that if children become good readers and understand the road map of our vocabulary, it will open doors to lifelong learning.

"When an issue came before her, she was always well-prepared. I consider her one of the most inspirational people I've ever met."

Although mostly identified with the phonics movement, Mrs. Dronenburg also had been at the forefront of revisions in math instruction, which the state Board of Education adopted by a11-0 vote in December 1997.

Approved over the objections of Eastin, the measure adopted rigorous new math standards for public schools.

Michael and Erica McKeown, outspoken opponents of a previous instructional philosophy termed "fuzzy math" by its critics, praised Mrs. Dronenburg for her role in the new measure.

"Knowing that she was on the state board and would do the right thing was a great comfort to parents like me and Erica who were desperately trying to help kids get the education we knew they needed," Michael McKeown said.

"All of the quality California now has in standards and frameworks reflect Kathy's skill, sense of what is important, and her charm to get people to see her way."

Mrs. Dronenburg's advocacy of special education students was instrumental in her appointment to the state Board of Education in 1990 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian.

Mrs. Dronenburg, the mother of a special education student, had served as chairwoman of the statewide Commission on Special Education and was honored in 1988 by the Clair Burgener Foundation for the Developmentally Disabled.

While serving under former Gov. Pete Wilson, Mrs. Dronenburg befriended his wife, Gayle.

"Kathy was a marvelous woman with a passion for life and education," Gayle Wilson said. "I have wonderful memories of campaigning with Kathy and Ernie (a former member of the state Board of Equalization), flying in a very small plane back from some fund-raiser in Imperial County many years ago."

Kathryn Myrle Dronenburg was born May 20, 1946, in Hayward. She was a 48-year resident of San Diego, and graduated in 1963 from Crawford High School and in 1967 with honors from San Diego State University.

Equipped with a reading specialist certificate, she began her teaching career at Walt Whitman Elementary School in Clairemont. Mrs. Dronenburg left after four years to raise a family. She returned to the classroom in fall 1998 as a first-grade teacher at Juarez Elementary School in Serra Mesa.

She taught until last June. Her cancer, which had been in remission, resurfaced last May, forcing her to undergo hip surgery and brain surgery.

For 10 years, Mrs. Dronenburg taught Sunday school at College Avenue Baptist Church. She was a former president of SPRITES of East County, a philanthropic organization for mothers and daughters.

Her honors included Citizen of the Year in 1992 from the Phi Delta Kappa educational sorority and an Outstanding Parent Award from the SDSU Department of Special Education.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by daughters, Kristen Lee Palenchar of Solana Beach, and Amy Mae Dronenburg and Stephanie Ann Dronenburg, both of El Cajon; sisters, Anita Graham of La Jolla and Elizabeth Mustol of La Mesa; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at College Avenue Baptist Church, 4747 College Ave., San Diego.

Donations are suggested to the PTSA Kathy Dronenburg Fund for Reading, Juarez Elementary School, 2633 Melbourne Drive, San Diego, CA 92123.

Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


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