Stairway to…

photo 2The steps got me thinking about construction being done. On Tuesday I walked past, delighted to see wood framing on the dirt hill leading up to San Dieguito’s newest classroom building, a two story structure that will house nine new science labs and another ten classrooms. It will be the tallest building on campus, ready to open in the fall of 2017.

The path from the past to the future, in this case a path from two mid-century bunker like concrete monsters to this modern academic edifice has been long. Permits and permissions delayed the start of the project, and even when the first shovel dug into the ground the scope of the work showed itself as enormous.

boxWhose idea it had been to erect two windowless buildings on a Southern California plot of land with both sea breezes and an ocean view I’ll leave to others to imagine, but the reality was a demolition that was unquestionably the right choice. It was a big job; the buildings were reinforced concrete, tons of it, and the resulting work made the center of campus look like a hurricane had blown through.

As the principal, it was my job to stay centered and help the school community understand that all would be well. Any change has the potential to raise anxiety, and this kind of dramatic undoing of years of the familiar did just that. At first.

This anxiety was exacerbated by the fact that decades of student art was affixed to the walls of the condemned buildings; senior tiles, mosaics, and murals would be destroyed as the buildings came down. We weathered the storm with the help of our art teachers’ reassurance, our students’ kindness, and our alumni’s understanding.

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Every week I met with the construction company and bond team. I articulated school concerns, advocated for SDA, and ensured that everything being done was both sensitive to the fact that construction was taking place on a working school campus and that the decisions we were making would, in the long term, good for kids.

As well as I could, I did my best to distill the construction information and share it with our school community. Emails and regular updates at staff meetings and parent coffees all helped. I even put together a video to show off the initial phases of the work. Communicating what was going on behind the construction fences was my responsibility as certainly as the foreman’s was to make sure progress was on schedule.

photo 1We invited that foreman and the project manager to come to one of our staff meetings. Putting a human face on the work went a long way in helping those of us on the school side of the house understand that it wasn’t just that a building was going up on campus, but that Jesse and Michelle were constructing a building on campus.

Along the way we watched buildings disappear, witnessed an amazing amount of hard work, and saw the new building emerge from the rubble.

As walls went up and a roof peeked over the 1930s era building in our main quad, folks started imagining what this new structure would bring to campus. Science teachers began talking about table tops and chemical storage, math teachers started discussing the merits of desks versus tables, and the whole school looked up and said things like “wow!”

photo 4For me, the guy whose Thursdays were increasingly dominated by construction meetings, the visible milestones (windows installed, stucco applied, scaffolding down) were reassuring. I knew how many people need to work together to create such a building, and what pressure they are under with regard to time, budget, and collaboration.

Then, late in the fall, as work moved inside the new building even more than outside, everyone watching was left to wonder: “What’s going on in there?”

Using photos snapped by the foreman, I shared glimpses into the labs and classrooms, and waited with the others for a chance to walk inside.

One February day we saw the lights go on, not the portable lighting drywallers use, but the classroom overheads. Progress!

The hardscape around the building began to take shape. Some of the wooden fences were replaced by chain link, and the final pieces of the roof went up, perfectly matching construction from 1937. As our superintendent said on one visit: “It looks like it just belongs here.”

photo 5It does.

And Tuesday, when I walked past that framing, I thought: “We’re getting closer.”

Wednesday the stairs were poured.

I thought: “We’re almost there.”

To see the end of a project coming close is a feeling as sweet as the road there is rough.

Looking up those stairs I see a future bright for students, a haven for learning, experimenting, and solving problems. I can imagine generations of students walking up those steps (and the countless skateboarders coming down them) and there on that hill I see possibility.

Construction is never easy and seldom without challenges, but seeing the results and knowing how positive those results can be for students and teachers helps to put into perspective the effort needed to achieve it.

It’s just about time to walk up those stairs.

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Maybe This Year

Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time…”
TS Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

Spring is a time when cold winds warm. Rain remains, reminding us sporadically that summer is still weeks away. In the world of major league baseball, pitchers and catchers have been throwing baseballs since February, but now that all the players have reported to training camp in sunbaked towns with names like Clearwater and Jupiter, Surprise and Goodyear, the sense that winter is ending is becoming real.

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Hope springs eternal and baseball brings out the 10 year old in all of us.

Some would claim that professional baseball is a will-o-the-wisp, an empty distraction from a serious world, and while my rational brain couldn’t disagree, when I pull a ball cap over that same head my heart takes over and I find myself believing what Casey Stengel said so many years ago: “The trick is growing up without growing old.”

Baseball helps me do that.

This is important as an educator, where our work with students is made richer by the ability to think young. I’ll never be accused of being hip, my musical tastes tend toward Sinatra, and I know that my photo appears next to the dictionary entry for “Dad,” but the spirit of optimism and belief in a better future is one that serves me well as a principal. It’s a point of view nurtured by many things, particularly the day to day interactions I share with students, and one reinforced by being a baseball fan.

The last time my team won the world series was 1988.

I still start every spring with the thought: “maybe this year.”

Legend has it that Babe Ruth said: “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

School, a place where mistakes are opportunities and life stretches out before the majority of the people who make up a school, is in many ways the same.

For those of us who make our life’s work education, it’s renewing to know that every February that great American institution, baseball, is there to remind us to be optimistic, to celebrate the potential we see, and to truly believe that this year will be special.

That’s not a distraction; that’s hope.

A Nostalgic Streak

Every spring San Dieguito hosts a reunion for former faculty and staff. Guests from across the decades arrive to the library to socialize and share stories from their time on campus. The smiles and hugs are inspiring and the tales told are like something out of a surfer friendly Arabian Nights.

San Dieguito is unique, among other reasons, for its longstanding place in the local community. Eighty years of graduates have passed through its breezeways and many of those souls make the decision to stay close to home to raise their own kids. Lots of our current students are the second or even third generation to come through San Dieguito. This is their town; San Diegutio is their school.

That sense of ownership is true for faculty too. At this year’s Faculty and Staff Reunion I spotted two SDUHSD superintendents, three San Dieguito principals, and more former teachers than I could count.

staff 3Mary and Jay, two former San Dieguito teachers who spoke at the soiree, telling stories about the bus barn fire and the bank that was once on campus, also graduated from San Dieguito …in 1940 and 1942 respectively.

More recent graduates attended as well; alumni are always welcome. They listened as staff from across the school’s history told stories, laughed, and enjoyed the company of others with whom they shared the bond of working at this special school.

Toward the end of the night, as I was grabbing a last cookie and making my way toward the door, a graduate from 1974 stopped me. Pointing her finger at me she said: “Mr. Paige, I have a story.”

I leaned against a nearby table, curious. My time at San Dieguito has taught me the importance of stories in a school’s history. More than anything else, more than buildings or photographs or trophies or even art, it is the stories of those people who make up a school that matter most.

“Remember that post you wrote about the streakers?” she asked. I did. Bonnie Wren, San Dieguito’s Alumni Coordinator had been kind enough to reprint Buns, a post about some marvelous stories by Mike Koslowski, in the alumni newsletter.

“Those streakers weren’t all guys.” She smiled. “What Koz was talking about was me and my girls.”

I must have smiled back.

“You see we had it all planned and were getting ready at lunchtime,” she went on. “Our getaway driver was a fella. I won’t tell you his name. He’s pretty prominent in the community now. Anyway, we were up in the bathroom here by the library.” She motioned to a spot that is still a girls bathroom today. “He was at the far end of the parking lot. We all gave our clothes to another person, who took them out to the car. Then, as the lunch crowd was breaking up, we ran!”

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I could picture the route she was talking about: down the “San Dieguito Ten Step,” past the door to the principal’s office, and out through the archway at the front of the school.

“You got away?” I asked, hopeful.

“Of course.” She smiled again. “Though the fella who was riding shotgun in the getaway car brings up the story at every reunion. It was a …memorable experience for him.”

To have a school that remembers its alumni and former staff, makes time for them to come together and reminisce, and honors their many and diverse experiences makes our school community stronger.

San Dieguito is a land of stories, some told with a smile and a streak of nostalgia.

Spring in the Air

photo-3-1There’s a shift in the school year when the time comes around for kids to start playing ball. Those gray days of winter still lurk nearby, and we all worry that water is pooling too much on the infield, but as the March sun punches through February’s clouds, drying the dirt and bringing life to the birds, there’s a palpable feeling that spring is in the air and summer is around the corner just waiting to be summoned with those two magical words: “Play ball!”

Spring sports at a high school are a high water mark for student participation. In addition to softball and baseball, lacrosse begins, the boys are playing tennis, golf and volleyball start up, and the largest team most schools ever see begins to jump, run, and shot put around the track and field.

513Those student athletes know that the difficult hours of practice they put in during the cool weather of March will pay off under the May sun, and their seasons starting up remind us all that graduation is closer than we think.

As a principal, this time of year is busy with preparation: for next year’s master schedule, giving tours to prospective students and families, and making sure that our ducks are in the proverbial row for state testing, senior activities, and ultimately that final day when mortarboards take to the air. Along the way there are retirements to commemorate, student awards to celebrate, and teachers to hire.

But this can also be a “tired time” as my former superintendent used to call it, a long stretch between winter and spring break. It’s a part of the year where we do well to try to be more patient with each other, smile a little more, and allow those around us, and ourselves, a little more room to breathe.

photo 1 (2)This is a time to embrace the efforts of others to keep our spirits up: ASB’s Spring Spirit Week, the math department’s “Pi Day,” and (here at SDA) the Dorkathalon.

Cheering on those spring athletes, the embodiment of youth, and spring, and hope, can be inspiring too. Today, if the rain holds off,  I’m going to head out and watch a softball game, and I know that the time spent in the stands promises renewal. Kids playing under the sun has a way of helping put life into perspective.

The Next 80 Years

San Dieguito’s first eighty years began in tents during the Roosevelt administration. The next eighty years will end in 2097.

photo-3-11If that date feels like the setting for a science fiction story, it is …at least from our early 21st century vantage point. For perspective, 2017 is about eighty years later than the publication of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

It’s always fun to look back at the futurists’ projections of what lay in store for humanity in the distant or not too distant future. Jetpacks, flying cars, robots. Whither San Dieguito?

I won’t be the fellow who predicts automatons will teach the kids or we’ll be traveling on pneumatic tube roadways. I’ll refrain from imagining levitating classrooms or a dome over the field.

I could play it safe and say that actors will still be staging Shakespeare in San Dieguito’s theater, as they did in 2016 …and 1970 …and 1946. I’m confident that we’ll have a thriving ASB, dynamic student journalists, and an art department that is the envy of the district. What that theater, or that paper, or those art studios look like, that I’m not so sure of. I do hope that the breezeways designed by Lilian Rice will still be home to students traveling from class to class.

The reality, however, is tough to predict. Eighty years before San Dieguito opened Walt Whitman was publishing Leaves of Grass, including “A Old Man’s Thought’s of School” that notices:

these young lives,
Building, equipping, like a fleet of ships—immortal ships!
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the Soul’s voyage.”

Lots can happen in eight decades, so many ships of youth launched from this campus into the measureless seas of the world.

So, veering away from infrastructure and architecture, I’ll stake my predictions for San Dieguito’s next eighty years on the observations I’ve made looking back at our school’s first eight decades.

photo-7I believe that the Mustang class of 2097 will be kind. I think they will be creative and accepting and innovative. I think they will surprise people who don’t know them and rise to the expectations of all those who do know them.

Like our students today, and students I’ve met who attended from 1936 until today, I believe that eighty years from now it will be the students who attend San Dieguito who define San Dieguito. Theirs’ will be the story told by some future historian, stories of adventure and connections that tell of young people striving to be themselves while being part of something bigger than themselves.

Those future generations, like our current students and the alumni who still call San Dieguito home, are the lifeblood of our school. San Dieguito’s first eighty years have contained multitudes; the next eighty years promise to be as grand.

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A Pie in the Face

I went into my 12:30 parent meeting with the smell of Readi Whip in my hair. I’d been sensible enough to bring a change of clothes; when students throw pies at their principals, part of the joy gets taken away if the target in question is covered in a garbage bag and shower cap, but when I lurched back to my office after the pies had flown, whip cream dripping into my eyes, my hair a blur of white and gray, I knew the smell would stick around.

PiePart of being a principal is being willing to play the fool, to dance at an assembly, to join in at a Comedy Sportz performance, and to say “yes” when the students ask you to play.

But those are the fun parts.

Another element of being the guy in the tie is being able to pivot on a dime, transitioning from a classroom observation to a construction meeting, from lunchtime supervision to a school board presentation, from taking a pie in the face to a high stress parent meeting.

Both sides are vital to helping a school thrive, and while the juxtaposition of whimsy and seriousness may seem dramatic, they’re two faces of one job.

The principal needs to be ready for anything.

Today’s Pi Day activities came sandwiched between discussions with parents on how best to help students make healthy decisions to avoid drugs, how we might support a student whose family was moving to the Persian Gulf, and a stressful conversation about a discipline issue. To dodge one to do the other was never an option, and while the frivolity of lunch seemed at odds with the gravitas of the rest of the day, I would argue that both were important to my school.

Being able to talk seriously about the issues that challenge us means that we can make progress toward solving the problems that vex our school community. Keeping a lightness in our collective hearts gives us the strength to make those solutions happen.

I once had a student ask me, with curiosity, not snark, “What do you do as the principal?”

My answer, given honestly, would look different every day.

Last Friday I had to give letters to all my temporary teachers letting them know that they would have to re-interview for their current jobs, I visited a “Senior Java” where the 12th grade class got together for bagels and conversation in the quad, I hosted a graduation planning meeting, met with some history teachers about master scheduling, and was slated to go to a robotics tournament in the evening.

Monday I met with parents about how to support kids in classes, parking tickets, and a contested suspension. A little later in the day two teachers from Japan visited to discuss an exchange program, I spent some time preparing for a parent Foundation meeting, and I visited classrooms.

Pie 2Tuesday, today, my assistant poked her head in my office and said with a smile “looking at the stressful day you have ahead of you, it’s fun to see ‘pie in the face’ on your calendar!” It is. It certainly is.

Perhaps the best answer to that student’s question would have been: “Every day I do my best to help our school.” That’s not a poetic answer, but it is a true one.

Today that work involved tears and whipped cream. Tomorrow, who knows. Whatever it is I welcome the work with a heart open to hope and a mind prepared to listen. And if the kids ask me to sing Carpool Karaoke, I’ll say “yes.”

Thank You

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart…”
-Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

To everyone who has inspired me, offered support, kindness, and humor over my eight years in the San Diegutio Union High School District, thank you.

As many of you have heard, this July I’ll be heading north to become the principal of the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy in Beaverton Oregon. It’s a school of just over 700 students, grades 6-12, with a focus on fine and performing arts. On the verge of major construction, filled with creative souls, and located in a state I have always known as home, ACMA is a school that, like San Dieguito, a school I love, speaks to me. As I mentioned to a friend yesterday, this is not a move inspired by leaving, but a move about going to.

In my heart I am an Oregonian, a fellow of moss and foggy afternoons, of flannel shirts, rainstorms, and used bookstores. I grew up beneath fir trees, and while I have loved my time in California, I have never stopped missing green. My path leads through a forest.

I’m excited, a little nervous, and ready to begin a new adventure.

BPwithKidsThat said, the person I am today is in large part a collection of the experiences I have shared with inspiring educators from three SDUHSD schools over the past decade.

I’m so thankful for my time at La Costa Canyon, working with gifted professionals whose Maverick spirit infused every day with a sense of urgency and vital energy. Never had I worked with a group of educators who made such a difference in the lives of so many students. Amid the crash of cymbals and whirl of green and blue I witnessed a thousand acts of quiet kindness. Thank you for both the school spirit and the examples of caring I saw every week.

I’m grateful too for Diegueno Middle School, a place where the whole staff once dressed as pirates, I saw first hand the magic great teachers bring to their work with students, and I learned that part of being a principal is being willing to have water dumped on your head.

photo 2 (1)And to San Dieguito, my kindred spirit of a place, my gratitude is matched only by the love I feel toward the people who make up this great school. I leave San Dieguito more changed by it than it will ever be by me. For that I am thankful.

Our school district is more than just a collection of great schools; SDUHSD is a life changing force for good, filled with nurturing adults, curious students, caring parents, and a sense of hope.

To all of my colleagues, students, and families, thank you.