Tunnel of Love

It would be a lie to say I love it, but there is a part of me that will miss San Dieguito’s “tunnel” when it’s gone in a just a few days.

early tunnelThe demolition of two buildings and construction of a new two story science and math building in the center of our campus ushered in my first year as principal at San Dieguito with the crash of a wrecking ball and rumble of heavy machinery. Bulldozers and cranes have been a part of my school ever since it became my school, and with a tight squeeze along a major north/south walkway, construction prompted a creative solution to student safety: building a massive wooden wall with a ceiling to separate students from construction.

It is, I realized, one of the few things about San Dieguito that is entirely mine. There was no “tunnel” (as it came to be called) before I was principal, and the wall will be gone before another principal arrives on campus. In its way, the tunnel captures some of the spirit of my time as principal at San Dieguito.

tunnelI arrived to construction and its attendant challenges, and found that the school, the students and adults who make up the San Dieguito family, are greater than any adversity, particularly that prompted by shovels and jackhammers.

The existence of the tunnel was a necessity; the students’ response was unexpected and beautiful. Seeing wood, they brought out paint.

They started with pictures: a horse, a peace sign, hearts, and even the Death Star.

Soon an art teacher and her painting class brought some cohesion, adding wheels, windows, and the concept of a train. More images appeared: fruit, animals, and a painting of a mountain that looked like it could be framed and put in a gallery.

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This was a creative solution to an immovable challenge, functional first, but soon a place for students celebrate their diverse artistic voices.

Was everything perfect? No. Life isn’t, but on this imperfect, evolving, and unpredictable canvas our school got to see the kaleidoscopic spirit of our student body.

The tunnel filled with color, originality, and whimsy.

Images grew, vibrant, beautifully silly, and sometimes profound.

They are, by the nature of the tunnel, transitory, “very SDA,” and (soon) gone.

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Giving a construction tour of our rainbow colored “tunnel” to board members, the SDUHSD Prop AA Citizens’ Oversight Committee, and local press.

Beneath a Rainbow Mustang

Time is funny, and perception funnier still. I realized this as I stood in front of my amazing staff at our last get together, a lunchtime gathering in the second to last week of the year. I made it a point to project the image of a blue Mustang, the SDA mascot, galloping across a rainbow flag. It was the image I’d projected behind me in my opening staff meeting on my first day at San Dieguito, a touchstone for a culture that is inclusive, caring, and filled with creativity.

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We’d muscled through a few directions for commencement, a review of check out procedures, and the results of the Dorkathalon, and reached a point I knew was inevitable: my time to say goodbye to a school I love.

…and I kept it short.

I had to. If I hadn’t, I know I would have teared up.

So I looked up at the crowd, and found that it felt as if I’d been friends with them for a long, long time. The faces I saw looking back at me were those of people with whom I’d shared coffee, traded places, and done so many things. These were amazing educators who I’d seen work with kids in ways that were creative, caring, and inspiring. Person by person, the smiles I saw, familiar and supportive, were those of kindred spirits with whom I have had the pleasure to strive alongside in this grand adventure that is education.

…and…

With that rainbow Mustang behind me, I had a flash of a feeling of the emotion I’d felt on my first day in front of my new school. And it felt like it had been a week since I had stood there for the first time.

That feeling lasted just a moment, but in that moment I remembered the nervousness I’d experienced, the hope that I could connect, the excitement to be starting something new.

And I thought…

I had connected.

I’m still excited.

The staff clapped and smiled. Some kind souls got me a pirate cake. It was a moment of profound emotion, leaving something to start something new.

I’ve tried to describe a bit of the magic of my experiences at San Dieguito in the posts on this modest blog, and know I’ve only captured a sliver of what it’s really like. I know this because at that moment, standing before my friends, remembering the feeling of newness, waves of those memories washed over me and time stood still.

San Dieguito’s Student Forum

Given the chance to talk and listen students become adults.

One of my very favorite parts of San Dieguito is our monthly student forum. Unfettered from adults or official ASB guidance, students at SDA gather together in the art studio, a space large enough to hold multitudes, to talk about the topics on their minds.

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Sometimes the ideas are big ones: How do we help integrate all grade levels for a more cohesive school? Other times the topics are profoundly practical: We need more toilet paper in the girls’ bathrooms! From time to time my role as principal puts me in the hot seat: We need more student parking. We do. Often the kindness of the students astounds me, as when a student addressing our visiting superintendent compared me to Beyoncé. Huh? …and thanks!

Mostly, the forum is an opportunity for students to have a voice in the life of their school.

IMG_6162Without shouting or having to mount a podium and fiddle with a microphone, every student, not just elected officials, has equal access to all her fellow students. The audience listens, really listens, students write down what is being said, and the audience responds respectfully. It is an exercise in democratic free speech that is inspirational.

Traditionally, two student moderators lead the forum, standing in front of a group well fed with pizzas provided by ASB. A blank document is projected on a screen at one end of the room, a place for notes, a list of topics suggested by the students, and announcements. It’s a document that will be shared with the staff as soon as the forum is over.

Not that staff isn’t there… Every forum all four of our administrators, many teachers, counselors, and classified staff join students at the forum to listen, answer questions, and hear about San Dieguito from a student point of view.

IMG_4364This point of view, or perhaps better said these points of view, are spoken, not shouted. Students are passionate about what they are saying, but the norms of the forum, built over years, are expectations of respect, kindness, and patience. Freshmen speak, seniors too, and students and staff listen to what they have to say.

The results can be immediate (more toilet paper), take a little longer (parking solutions), be subtle or transformative. Regardless of what comes out of a student forum, however, it is the existence of such a tradition that makes the biggest difference.

Any school is a better place when students are heard. Strong student newspapers are one way of sharing student perspectives, vibrant student governments are another, and here at San Dieguito it’s amazing to know that there is a place for every student to share her point of view. Our school is richer because if it!

Keeping the Beat

We’ve known each other for almost a decade and his smile, warmth, and easy laugh have always made me feel comfortable and good, happy to be in his company and proud to work with him as a fellow principal in our district. What a sense of celebration then when I found out that Adam Camacho will be the next principal at San Dieguito!

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Some people know Adam as the principal of Earl Warren Middle School, a post he has held for three years, shepherding the staff through major construction and demonstrating an empathy and patience that will serve him well as he moves to SDA. Adam and I talked often when I was the principal of Diegueño Middle School, about how best to help our young charges navigate the tumultuous years of junior high, and I was always struck by the profound care he felt toward each student.

Others may remember Adam as a counselor; he worked with students in their greatest hours of need before becoming an administrator, and those skills of listening, supporting, and helping students find themselves were not lost when he put on a tie, but simply manifested in other ways.

And some folks may know Adam as a rock and roll star. As the drummer for the faculty rock band The Credentialed, and later another group of teachers, counselors, and administrators who made music to raise money for student scholarships called Poncherello, Adam’s drum solos have brought down the house for years. He rocks! Literally.

I’m fortunate to know him as all three of these, and even more as a friend.

So as San Dieguito welcomes Adam as its next principal, I’m thankful to know that the person taking over this office brings common sense, kindness, and the ability to keep a steady beat even as the electric guitars blare and singers belt out rock and roll tunes.

San Dieguito is in good hands with Adam, and Adam is in good hands with San Dieguito.

The Bones

At a school it’s the students who are the lifeblood of campus. Their energy, unbounded, fills our days with unexpected surprises and a justification for the hope that brought every teacher and staff member to this profession of education. But in this analogy, the framework on which everything hangs, the foundation of our collective body, is the adults who call our school home; the staff are the bones.

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Every May we take an opportunity to celebrate the classified and certificated staff, the board passing resolutions honoring both groups, our parent foundation throwing a fancy lunch, and our students offering gallons of coffee and even more thank yous than normal to the adults in their school lives.

Those adults more than earn the praise and appreciation.

I’ve been reminded of that recently by a slew of events where staff have been willing to say “yes” to students when asked to do things as kooky as give improv comedy a try at the Teacher-Student Comedy Sportz game, the assistant principals emceeing a school assembly, and our Homeroom Olympics including a day with a collective primal scream …followed by Jazzercise.

csz2It’s in events like this that students get to see the kindness and humanity of their teachers, administrators, and classified staff. It’s one thing to go to an AP study session with a teacher you respect; it’s another to see that teacher in a dunk tank, swatting at a softball, or trying to sing.

But it’s this willingness to play, and occasionally play the fool, that endears the adults at a school to the students. The expression of glee on the faces of the Comedy Sportz students when the delightful woman who manages our learning commons agreed to step on stage was profound. “We got the librarian!” one Comedy Sportzer shouted, the group cheered. …and that night, on stage, she got one of the night’s biggest laughs with a “flick and swish” line in a Harry Potter bit. It was hilarious, and sweet, and will be something the kids talk about for a long time.

photo (4)As profound, in my mind, was last week’s Spring Assembly. It still amazes and delights me that when the kids thought about who they wanted to emcee the event they chose two assistant principals. These intrepid souls threw themselves into the job, recruiting a flash mob of teachers to join them in a dance from Napoleon Dynamite, leading the crowd in karaoke, and showing that while from time to time they need to lay down the law, they can do so with the kind of respect that shows students that they’re more than just their office. These administrators are humans, and good ones at that.

photo 4 (2)That sense of goodness is at the heart of this year’s Homeroom Olympics, a tradition at San Dieguito linked to a woman who typifies all that is right about our school, retiring assistant principal Dr. Jeanne Jones. In addition to events like synchronized swimming without water and scavenger hunts around campus, this year Dr. Jones and her team of student organizers encouraged events to promote wellness and balance for all students. This led to Tai Chi in the quad, pet rock painting, and two homerooms working together to provide a day near midterms when the whole school could step outside for a primal scream and then laugh as they moved to a class of students in 80s style leotards leading them through Jazzercise. To work at a school where students and staff work together for such profound play is inspiring.
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All the while, as they say yes to the silly stuff these same adults are there for the dramatic moments. It is to these caring teachers, counselors, and classified staff that students turn for help and understanding, knowing at least in part that these adults are people just like them, but with a few more years on the planet. For their part, the adults listen, care, and help the students find the answers or support they need. They change and save lives.

As they do, those same teachers, counselors, and classified staff do their work with and for students with passion, purpose, and professionalism. They arrive early and stay late, plan, adapt, and refine lessons, and put students and learning first.

These adults make profound differences one interaction at a time. They are the bones that hold up education and one week is not enough time to celebrate them. They are heroes.

San Dieguito Principals

There are seventeen of us, eighteen if you count Rizzi, who was principal twice. It’s not a crazy number for eighty years, not when you consider that in that time there have been fourteen US presidents, nine United Nations Secretary Generals, and a dozen Dr. Whos.

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As you’d expect, lining us up in black and white photos you see a mix of serious expressions and dark ties. You notice high foreheads and mostly conservative jackets. Some of us are smiling in our official portraits, though just about everyone looks as if he or she could lay down a detention if bad came to worse.

Being a principal brings doses of joy and stress. My own time in this office, the same office principals have occupied since Arthur Main in 1937, has shown me that I have a unique and wonderful seat from which to watch the parade of youth that marches through the breezeways at San Dieguito. And what a cavalcade it has been for the past eighty years.

photo 2 (5)Watching those students learn and teachers teach, shouldering the responsibility that comes with the job, and managing everything from construction to academics, the company I have the privilege to keep is an interesting bunch.

Arthur Main was the first principal at San Dieguito, opening the school in 1936 in rented tents and a borrowed elementary school. He was followed by Donovan Cartwright, the San Dieguito principal who looked most like Errol Flynn, and Tom Preece, who faced a polio epidemic at San Dieguito that delayed the start of school in 1948. These three faced the challenges of opening a school, and a district, and building the foundation on which the post war growth would build.

William Mace and Matthew Korwin were at the helm in the 1950s, joined by San Dieguito fixture David Davidson, the first San Dieguito superintendent who was not also the high school’s principal. As the scare of communism rose, they saw San Dieguito through challenging political times, a preview of what would happen when sometime a decade later all hell broke loose.

photo 1 (4)Don Crickmore, for whom the current baseball diamond is named, was principal to begin 1960, followed by John Clark, who saw San Dieguito leave the 1950s behind and embrace a spirit of freedom that challenged many and enlivened others. The serious expression Mr. Clark wears in his yearbook portrait was earned through stress both local and national. His ability to navigate the challenges of the job was great.

Leonard Morris and William Hershey guided San Dieguito through the 1970s, a time of freedom and creativity. Their smiling faces and substantial sideburns speak of a campus that had left the buttoned down 1950s far behind and was looking forward toward an independence of spirit that has never left the school.

photo 3 (4)The 1980s belonged to Sal Ramirez, whose eleven year tenure is the longest of any San Dieguito principal. Described by some as student centered and fair, Mr. Ramirez was an enigma to some, a hero to others, and a frustration to a few. In a word, he was a principal. So often those of us who put on a tie and do our best to lead a school find ourselves in situations that challenge our best decisions. To serve in one position for more than a decade speaks to a talent increasingly rare.

Penny Cooper Francisco followed Mr. Ramirez in 1993, inheriting a staff in need of some uniting. Indefatigable, a colleague told me “she didn’t expect anyone to work any harder than she did, but boy did she work!”  She listened, guided, and cared, and was remembered by staff as a natural-born leader who led with inspiration and a wonderful sense of humor.

Don Rizzi, who had served as an assistant principal at San Diegutio began his first tour of duty as principal in 1995, presiding over the division of the school into San Diegutio High School Academy and the new high school, La Costa Canyon. It wasn’t to be Mr. Rizzi’s last time in the office, nor his longest run as principal.

photo (1)When San Dieguito opened in the fall of 1996, Fran Fenical began her tenure as principal of the newly christened “academy.” With vision and purpose, Ms. Fenical helped to create and inspire the “funky” and inclusive culture that defines San Dieguito to this day. This school year, the 80th anniversary of San Dieguito and 20th anniversary of SDA, I’ve been able to witness first hand the love and respect the founding staff of San Diegtuito Academy have toward Fran. When she spoke to our current current body, wearing a tie dyed “Keep SDA Funky” shirt, she was a star.

Both the 12th and 14th principal at San Dieguito, Don Rizzi returned to the principal’s chair in 2002, bringing with him a smile and sense of good will. He served as principal until 2005 and in that time saw the school blossom, evolve, and continue to grow.

MG2Four of us fill the final dozen years of San Dieguito’s most recent history. Barbara Gauthier, Mike Grove, Tim Hornig, and I each took a turn in the wood paneled office overlooking the front of the school. Ours are memories still too fresh for history to digest, but each of us brought our best selves to the job and left with a bit of San Dieguito pixie dust still clinging to our suits.

Throughout our school’s eighty years San Dieguito has shown that it is greater than any individual, a strong school spirit constant even as the person in the principal’s chair changes. This sense of school is important, sustaining, and promises that whatever the next eighty years bring and whomever the next eighteen principals will be (Rizzi again?), San Dieguito will continue to be the special place so many call home.

“Yo Jay, yo Jay, check this out!”

We ended the drive with the five of us singing “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a swinging tune that sums up at least a part of my swirling emotions as principal at San Dieguito. Four amazing students, creative, funny, and kind, had asked me to shed any administrative dignity I might have and join them for Carpool Karaoke. “Yes” was the right answer, and by the end of the ride the lyrics to that Sinatra song had never been so true.

2Being a principal means being willing to play, participate, and share laughter with students. It also means shouldering responsibility, working hard and sometimes long hours, and bringing as much balance as possible to the job. Keeping students first in my mind helps me do that.

So today, as ASB kids filmed a segment for the spring assembly, I hopped into a car and did my best to destroy a series of marvelous songs.

They’d asked me if I had anything I wanted to sing, and before I answered I thought about it, only to realize that the music I listen to falls into two categories: old, old, old stuff (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, so out of their world as to be unrecognizable) and rock and roll not suitable for a principal to croon (let’s be honest, it simply isn’t appropriate to hear the principal sing almost any song by Prince, The Pogues, or Social Distortion). So I made only one suggestion, an unexpected ditty that I thought would be worth a laugh, and I left the rest of the playlist up to the students.

3We started innocently enough, with a little Bowie. Parking is an ongoing challenge at our school, so we set the narrative of our video as my helping the driver, a senior, find a place to park. There was no more natural soundtrack than us mm-ba-ba-de-de-bum-bum’ing our way through Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

We laughed, anyway.

Next, I revisited my misspent youth with an unexpected riff on Run DMC’s “Son of Byford,” my driver beat boxing as he shook his head that this old man would know the words of any rap song.

The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” did not go so smoothly, but by the time we belted out “The Time of My Life,” a fitting farewell to SDA, we’d both hit our stride.

4Half an hour later, thinking we had enough footage to be cut and spliced into at least 30 seconds of entertainment, we headed back to the front lot. As we did, laughing that there might be no songs that we both knew the words to, we picked up three ASB students who were helping film and edit the video. They piled into the back and I apologized as we pulled away from the curb. “I only know Sinatra songs,” I said, and from the back seat I heard: “Pull over.”

Then, with a quickness that surprised me, my driver found a series of Old Blue Eyes songs on his phone. From the back seat came the suggestion for “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and without hesitation we broke into song.

I don’t know if the cameras were rolling as we drove back to my office, but I do know that those two minutes will remain in my memory as some of the most joyful I’ve had here at San Dieguito.

1I’d thought that my choice of Run DMC would be the biggest surprise of the day, but (as is so true so often at this fabulously funky school) it was the students who surprised me. They were so kind to invite me to join the fun, they put up with my inability to sing, and they even knew a little Sinatra. A delight.