“If it was an all staff email about robotics or the Japanese National Honors Society it would have gotten a dozen replies.” Our athletic director shook his head. “They won CIF and I got two.”

While he said it to me with more bemusement than frustration, I could feel in his observation the emotion of a dad looking out for his kids. He was so very proud of them and he wanted our entire campus community to recognize their accomplishment too.

“If it’s any consolation,” my assistant told him, “when I put photos from sporting events on Facebook they get a lot of likes.”

He smiled. Passionate about supporting student athletes, my friend the athletic director is building a program at a school known for the last couple of decades as an arts powerhouse, a place of murals, music, and students wearing Pikachu costumes. This means that he’s working with students, parents, teachers, and coaches to build a program with a twinkle in his eye.

The most enduring image I’ve seen that captures our school’s funky spirit as it applies to athletics is from the stands at a soccer game last year. Amid a sea of smiling faces one student holds aloft a sign that simply says: “SPORTS!”


I try to project that image behind my athletic director whenever he presents at a meeting. Ours is an unconventional school, more filled with “ands” than “ors.” Last season one of our basketball players took a couple of weeks off to star in the winter musical. She loved playing point guard and she loved tap dancing in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Given a choice between athletics and the arts, she proved herself a synecdoche of San Dieguito and chose both.

903Yet the notion of our school as a place that embraces sports isn’t strange; we have a long tradition of student athletics.

At the opening of the school in 1936, and on through the next forty years, San Dieguito was the only program in town. With successful football teams, a basketball program that spawned professionals, softball, baseball, track and field, and more, the Mustangs were one of North County’s premier high school athletic programs.

Athletics gave students a reason to build bonfires and gather together as a school, and…

513…and even from the start San Dieguito had its own style and funky vibe.

In 1958, when a San Dieguito “Cinderman” set the school record in the shot put, the Mustang Band received its highest rating in school history. (For those kids reading, running tracks were once made of “cinder” a nightmare for parents doing laundry, and a crunchier way of running races!)

As the 1969 Mustang Wrestling Team became Avocado League Champions, the San Dieguito Motorcycle Club roared across campus a dozen riders strong.

As 1995 Volleyball team captured CIF, Mustang student artists mounted an enormous art show in the space that later became the Mosaic Cafe.

That same balance exists today at a school where students thrive in robotics, Mustang Minds, and Comedy Sportz (with a “z”) at the same time a growing percentage of the student body choose to put on a blue and white uniform and compete in a sport or maybe two.

photo 2 (5)We don’t have a football team any more, though the sixty year legacy that began in leather helmets still finds a place in our current traditions. Every homecoming we dust off the old uniforms for a gargantuan flag football tournament that sees hundreds of students play through the afternoon, and ends with a staff versus students game that provides everyone an opportunity to have fun together.

At halftime last year the students all came out on the field and danced.

This playful way of looking at sports might lead to the misconception that our student athletes or our school community doesn’t value athletic competition, but that simply isn’t true.

At San Dieguito we value athletics, academics, and arts. We celebrate innovation, inspiration, and kindness.

In a nutshell, at San Dieguito we value students.

We care about all of their pursuits from sculpture to skateboarding, from singing to soccer.

Back to my AD’s email…

I love that he sent out a few celebratory words about our volleyball team, and even though he may not have gotten as many all staff replies as my drama teacher did for Thespicon, I’ll wager that his email prompted more than a few teachers to congratulate those student athletes he was so very proud of.

Go Mustangs …all of you!


“You know, for kids…”

photoThere a point in The Hudsucker Proxy, a Cohen Brothers movie about, among other things, hula hoops, where Tim Robbin’s character holds a drawing of a circle up to a coworker whose puzzled expression prompts the explanation: “You know, for kids!”

It’s a circle, so simple as to be ridiculous, and combined with Robbins’ wonderfully earnest expression reminds me of the biggest why of our profession. In the busy or stressful times, when it’s easy to make things more complicated than they need to be, we could all do ourselves a favor by repeating Robbins’ line, maybe even with that goofy grin.

This year we took about a quarter of our opening day staff meeting to underscore this perspective by having students take our faculty through a series of activities to build community and prepare for the year ahead. More than symbolic, though that too, the experience of students leading adults, of those kids being listened to and seen with such respect, brought into focus both the reason we educators do what we do and the great good that can come from providing students the opportunity, encouragement, and responsibility to engage with the adults at the school we share.

photo 1That morning, three intrepid students led us through a series of challenges and games, and had our teachers, counselors, administrators, and classified staff smiling, talking earnestly, really listening to each other …and even playing tag.

Throughout the activities, the students emphasized how important it is for us to know each other, know ourselves, and work together for a greater good. They encouraged us to open up, to take chances, and to be proud of the work we do.

When they ended our half hour outside by telling us: “We can hardly wait to see you on the first day of classes!” no one doubted their sincerity and everyone seemed to share their sentiment.

What these three students did was astounding. With poise and purpose (and infectious smiles) they had a group of nearly a hundred adults following their every direction, suspending adult inhibitions, and playing together.

faculty plays

That our faculty was so willing to embrace this experience was further proof of the priority they place on students. I’ve worked where some people say they value and respect students; the educators I had the pleasure to spend time with at that first meeting showed how much they live that truth.

We educators get into this profession to make a difference, and often the most powerful impact comes when we inspire and empower, expect great things, believe in our students, and remember that truth, as simple as a circle, that what we do is, you know, for kids.

Get Ready

It has been a whirlwind week of preparation, exciting in the company of students, educators, coaches, and parents, and inspiring in the focus of the shared vision of making a school that is great for all students.

photo 1 (4)After a few weeks of relative isolation, plugging away at paperwork and talking more with construction workers than any other adults, this past week has offered me the opportunity to attend an ASB retreat, a coaches dinner, a parent Foundation planning meeting, and spend time with my own admin team. The wealth of talent and passion is jaw dropping.

Much of the success any school sees over the course of the year comes from the vision and preparation that fill the days before students arrive on campus. It’s so important that we build and strengthen the systems that we have in place that allow teachers to teach, students to learn, and all of our school community members to contribute to this place we call home.

That principals and assistant principals spend lots of time planning isn’t a surprise to anyone; that’s part of our job, after all, and we know that if we do it well we have an opportunity to build a meaningful and positive framework on which to construct a great year.

What not everyone knows or notices is the care in preparation that other groups bring to the school year.

photo 2 (5)On Tuesday I drove to Palm Springs, where our Associated Student Body students had gathered to discuss the year ahead. Over the course of three days they drew up lists, dreamed big dreams, laughed, planned, and brought their youthful energy to the question of what they could do to make San Dieguito the best place for all students that it could be. They talked about building community, including everyone, and nurturing the sense of acceptance, creativity, and funkiness that help to define our school.

These student leaders, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, bring an unbounded energy to their work and to our school. To see them talking about how they could work together to make our school welcoming and supportive for every student, and every teacher too, couldn’t help but inspire, . By the time I left them more than a few had agreed to come to our first staff meeting to lead teachers in activities to promote community.

Students leading teachers. Magic.

photo 5 (3)Student leaders were also a topic of conversation at the “Coaches Dinner” that saw our athletic director gather together the head coaches of all of our sports team for a meal and conversation about how to support kids and each other. Over pasta and salad I saw our softball coach, a veteran of 26 years, listen to our first year soccer coach talk about the importance of athletes supporting athletes. I sat next to our baseball coach as he chatted with our cross country coach about connecting with kids. I saw this collection of caring adults come together to discuss what they could do to contribute to our school and our students’ education.

To say that conversation was kid centered would be an understatement. These were professionals who love their sports and care deeply about supporting the student athletes who play them. From the youthful field hockey coach to the veteran track coach, these adults have dedicated a huge portion of their lives to making a difference in the lives of youth. And they do.

photo 4 (3)Also making a difference, and a larger difference than any can articulate, are the parents, and on Saturday I had the pleasure of joining our Foundation’s executive board for an all day retreat to discuss the months to come. As playful and passionate as the kids from Tuesday, these caring parents came back to the question that drives my work: “Is this good for kids?”

The ideas that came out of our time together are good for kids, and the partnership between our school and our parents enriches the lives of everyone who is a part of San Dieguito.

Parents, students, and the adults who work with kids are, together, the reason our school succeeds. In the days ahead I’ll work closely with teachers, counselors, and classified staff to make sure that we’re ready to go when classes start on August 30th. We will be, and it will be because of the collaborative work that happens before school begins.

August in the Principal’s Office

I remind myself
that the first year
they started with classes in tents

Straight rows of white canvas
holding students reading
Virgil and Homer and
not thinking about
the war to come
still stinging from
the great crash
to learn
at a brand new school

Their school,
now my school too,
is eighty this August
without tents
but still under construction
and still filled with students
hungry to learn

And just as Mr. Main
the first principal,
described in the yearbook on my desk as

….good sport…sparse of hair…
…vocalizes in lusty tones…”

some close to home;
some to be emulated)

I sit in the same office
that principals have
since the Roosevelt administration
and prepare for students to arrive
just days from now
hungry to learn.

photo 4 (6)


Early August on a high school campus is hot and a little lonely. As a principal, I get back before most, and until folks start drifting back from summer vacation it’s just me, my assistant, and a skeleton crew of twelve month employees coming to school to get things ready for the start of a new year.

photo 2 (2)That preparation includes everything from organizing our “Taking Care of Business Days” to making sure that the master schedule is the best that it can be. There’s also work to be done preparing for the opening staff meeting, planning ways to bring our campus community closer together, and this summer the steady growl of heavy machinery as construction crews work on two big projects that will make our school better in the long term, but right now constitute a hard hat zone.

Even so, I love early August for the promise of possibility it brings. IT’s now that administrators like me have the relative quiet to set goals and make the plans that will help guide our year. September through June is run at a gallop; August trots.

To mix metaphors, early August is the gesso on the canvas of the year. Oil painters know that to create a work that will last, the canvas needs to be properly prepared. The best painters spend the time necessary applying gesso, the chalky white undercoat put on a canvas, to create a place where the brilliant colors will appear. Like those painters, the preparations we do now allow for the layers and layers of color that will emerge over the months ahead.

534I don’t know what this year’s image will look like yet, nor what colors will fill the proverbial canvas, but I honestly believe that the preparations of August can help to make a true difference come September, January, and May.

So as my intrepid assistant sends out letters of welcome and the men in yellow safety vests and plastic white helmets move the earth around us, my thoughts turn to the painting that will follow this month’s gesso.

The real fun begins as students and teachers begin coming back to campus. Soon.

Harry Potter and the Kaleidoscopic Academy

CursedThe discussion at the breakfast table today was about Harry Potter. Specifically, the kids were deciding if they knew anyone who would want to go with them to the party at the local bookstore to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Conversation turned to the realization that between the two, my kids really only had one friend who likes the little wizard as much as they do.

What struck me most as I listened to the kids talk was the fact that this independent taste wasn’t a problem for them. They have lots of friends who like baseball or soccer or art, but reading and Harry Potter not so much. And they were okay with that.

In a world so often overrun by groupthink and guided by peer pressure, examples like this one, silly as it may seem, are a welcome reminder of the joy of independent thought and sense of self.

Those qualities can be even tougher to hold onto during the middle and high school years, when peers take on importance of religious proportions and insecurity comes as inevitably as pimples on one’s nose.

As educators, and as schools, it’s important for us to nurture the individualism of our students. There are times and places that convince me of the progress we’ve made on this front; high school today looks a lot less like a John Hughes movie than it did when I was in school, but one needn’t look beyond the internet to see examples that remind us how insecure we all are and how much we’ll compromise to feel that we fit in.

mkBeing adults makes it easier to own our individual tastes, even it they’re nutty or unrefined. I’m okay today saying that I dig Sherlock Holmes, Sammy Davis Jr., and Moon Knight, while in high school it mattered more to me that I had a letterman jacket and didn’t wear embarrassing shoes. As we get older, most of us come to that point where we own who we are, at least more than we did as teenagers.

So the challenge is to take this adult security and help our students see beyond the consistent and ubiquitous pressure to conform and hold on to (or even develop) their individual tastes and passions that are their own. Unapologetically.

I’m not so foolish as to believe that this won’t feel a bit like punching ocean waves, but the perspective that our own opinions matter, that our tastes help to define who we are, is valuable in the developing health of our kids.

In classrooms this can take a thousand forms. I’ve seen teachers provide students with more freedom to choose some of what they study. Some teachers use project based learning to allow students to apply concepts or methods to a topic of their own.

I once had a student when I taught in rural Oregon impress and surprise his classmates with a presentation on his gingerbread building prowess. In an urban California school I watched as a student talked at length about her grandfather, a boxer in the 1930s who almost knocked out Joe Louis.

Great teachers understand the importance of knowing, really knowing, their students, and they create classroom cultures that are safe and encourage students to tell their stories. Often these teachers model this truth telling themselves, and always they value what students have to say.

Schools can model this culture of acceptance and celebration by encouraging clubs, taking time to honor students’ diverse talents and interests, and presenting the many human faces, student and adult, that make up the school as a whole.

I’m blessed to work at a school that honors and values individuals and individuality, all while celebrating our collective, kaleidoscopic life. Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, a commitment to helping students find, and own, their own voices can be …magic.


It’s the last week of school and I’m elbow deep in the process of finishing next year’s master schedule. We have the thousands of course requests, the teacher preference sheets, and the task of coming up with a plan that is balanced and fair, getting as many of the students the classes they’d like most. It’s not unlike making a movie; many hands are needed (department chairs, counselors, administrators) and as with a movie, the director does best when listening to the many various opinions while keeping a firm vision and commitment to high quality.

Last night, as I was pouring over the latest draft of the schedule looking at room use, it hit me. I’d spent the better part of an hour reading names.

Abrahamson, Deb
Bair, David
Baggins, Kelly
Barriga, Ivonn
Bennett, Laura
Berend, Jason
Blanchard, Darlene
Bode, Sheryl

Over and over again I wrote room numbers between teachers’ names and the courses we’re offering, and I thought: these people make our school what it is.

Bolig, Lily
Boyd, Donn
Brice, Paul
Briggs, Tim
Broemmelsiek, Jocelyn
Buskirk, Mie
Cameron, Eli
Cannon, John
Cardenas, Ryan
Ceseña, Caroline
Chaker, Martin

That we have dynamic electives, real world connections in core classes, and hordes of motivated students is a direct result of the passionate and professional adults who give so much to our school.

Coppock, Susan
Corrao, Christine
Dargan, Liz
Davidson, Russ
Del Rio, Shannon
diCristina, Ellen
Duck, Jamie
Easbey, Mark
Erales, Curt
Escontrias, Kyle
Etheridge, Robin

Reading their names, one after another after another…

Faris, Bryn
Fisher, Stephen
Floyd, Sean
Germano, Jeff
Hawkins, Kelly
Herrera, Angela
Hovey, Trish
Hrzina, James
Huntley, Scott

…reminded me that no matter what initiatives or programs, no matter what directives or vision, it is the teachers, those weaving magic in classrooms, student by student…

Irish, Stan
Jackson, Angela
Johnson, Chris
Jordon, Scott
Keillor, Rod
King, Mary
Koda, Kerry
Lee, Gail
Lee, Jaewon
Leonard, Kerri

…who make the biggest difference in the lives of our kids and the health of our campus culture.

There on paper…

Magnuson, Ruth
Martinez, Marco
Medak, Kajsa
Moulton, Tina
Mullen, Leona
Newman, Blaze
Norris, Oly
Park, Linda

…in phalanxes of boxes with course ID numbers, arranged alphabetically or by department…

Parks, Jackie
Ramos, Cathy
Reeves, Patricia
Roberts, Tim
Ross, Rob
Shayegan, Melissa
Siers, Stephanie
Springstead, Amy
Smith, Eric
Stimson, George
Teisher, Bob

…were the most powerful agents for good I could ever imagine.

People ask me sometimes what makes our school so special, and it’s not wrong to mention the curious and creative students, supportive parents, and strong tradition of eighty years of San Dieguito, but as I read these names…

Temple, Heather
Trahan, Keith
Travis, Rebecca
Tsuboi, Rie
Van Gorder, David
Vollstedt, Todd
West, John
Witt, Kevin
Wright, Jeremy
Wuertz, Jeremy

…I was struck by the truth that no single force does more to inspire, create, and celebrate the spirit of our school than our teachers.

When any of us feel that warmth of belonging or that pride in being part of our school community, when we look up and shake our heads in amazement at the exquisite funkiness of our school, when we’re overcome by appreciation and want to shout those feelings from the rooftops, I’d simply suggest: thank a teacher.


25 Words

This Friday at graduation I won’t give a speech. No one will, in fact, no ASB president, no valedictorian, no visiting dignitary. Instead, in a long running and well loved San Dieguito tradition, every one of our graduating seniors get to say a little something to the crowd.

Well, “say” isn’t exactly the right word; to do something like that would involve a lot of mic passing and run the risk of pushing the ceremony into the run time of a Harry Potter movie.

No one wants that.

Instead, each senior has the opportunity to write her own graduation message, the words that will be read as she picks up her diploma.

Twenty five words to be exact.

Last month seniors submitted their messages, along with phonetic spellings of their names, and that parcel of humor and heart is now collected on my secretary’s desk just waiting for commencement to begin.

The messages are wonderful.

…and unique.

Years past have seen everything from the expected appreciation of parents and teachers to heartfelt messages of love to family and friends. One year a group of students who followed each other in order each submitted twenty five words from the lyrics of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody …with the direction that the counselors sing the messages.

The counselors did.

This may sound goofy to some, or irreverent on a day meant to celebrate a serious accomplishment, and I suppose in a way it is both, but it’s also a great example of who we are as a school.

I’ve looked at this year’s messages and they continue this tradition of the silly and the sublime. That the two can nestle together and be filled with so much joy is a testament to our students and our school.

For anyone who hasn’t seen a graduation at San Dieguito, Friday’s commencement will prove a great opportunity to hear the diverse voices of our students. Taken together they form one unified voice for our special school.

“SDA’s Favorite Day”

Before it started, as students were setting up booths and the dance team was organizing itself on the outdoor stage opposite the dunk tank and robotics display, a student came up to me and described it as “SDA’s favorite day.”

photo 2I smiled at him; the claim seemed hyperbolic, especially on the heels of such great events as class javas, opening a time capsule, and a string of amazing homeroom olympics events. “It’s my first Exhibition Day,” I admitted. “You’re going to love it,” he replied, and then he disappeared into the crowd of students packing in baskets of homemade jewelry and getting ready to set up the drum circle.

Exhibition Day has been a San Dieguito tradition for almost twenty years. It’s an opportunity for students to celebrate the pursuits they love: music, art, motorcycles, you name it. Once there was a petting zoo.

photo 3This year saw a skateboarding demonstration, a bouncy slide, and a car show. Student entrepreneurs sold t-shirts designed and created in our screen printing shop, homemade organic soap, and Henna tattoos. The Photography Club had a booth with cards and prints, the Thespians read palms and painted faces, and one of my assistant principals assured me that the Bento bowl she got from the Japanese National Honor Society was fantastic.

A little like a carnival, a little like a swap meet, and a little like an alternative music festival, this student imagined and student run event (with a little help from our veteran ASB advisor) is a celebration of the things that our students are passionate about beyond the walls of school. It’s a place for open mic poetry, hula dancing, and the student selling her own line of swimwear. Exhibition Day brings sea glass jewelry, succulents, and waffles to campus. It invites the unexpected.

photo 1In addition to the Saturday Market side of things, students and adults who call San Dieguito home also had opportunities to engage with each other in creative pursuits. Many hands and many brushes painted the “art car.” Up by our Mosaic Cafe blindfolded pottery throwing inspired the senses while just inside the Mosaic a cavalcade of student musicians entertained audiences in an intimate venue.

photo 1 (4)More raucous fans cheered on our Comedy Sportz performers in the theater, and throngs of students yelled along with the growling rock and roll bands who played in the outdoor amphitheater.

What impressed me most was how happy everybody was. Students laughed and joked. I saw I could buy “Bad Advice” for fifty cents and “Awkward Compliments …and tape” for only a quarter.

Teachers populated the dunk tank and later cradled the student made items they’d purchased as they walked from booth to booth. One of my assistant principals led a dance line during a heavy metal concert on the outdoor stage.

I was enjoying all this when the chair of my English Department challenged me to a race through the bouncy slide. Moved by the spirit of the day, I ignored that she was fit and young, and I pulled off my shoes and accepted the high fives of the students clustered around the starting line.

raceNote to self: 46 year old men do not belong on bouncy slides.

But, boy was it fun.

Everything about the day was a blast, and celebrated the funky, free spirited reality that is San Dieguito. Around every corner was an unexpected delight: Pokemon Cards, sushi, and a chalk mandala. On every face was a smile, and behind each eye the twinkle of possibility.

photo (3)Our school board president stopped by, as she often does to visit campus, and her laughter and happy interaction with our students told me that she could feel it too. She knew, as she witnessed students making music and art, and feeling free to be themselves, that this was something magical.

This was, to put it simply, SDA’s favorite day.

“Murmurs of the infinite sea…”

photoJune, the season of graduates, can be bittersweet. The seniors, who some of us have know for so very long, stand in adolescent awe at the threshold of young adulthood. In a few short days they will be gone from our campus and from our everyday life.

We educators stay behind, memories of our former students alive in our hearts and in the photographs taped to the classroom walls, even as the students who made those memories are living their emerging lives just beyond our sight. For us, they are perpetually seventeen, at least until they return years later to startle us with their maturity.

Even then, when they walk away from our campus once again our memories of them revert to the scores of smiling faces pictured on our classroom walls.

In these emotional times, I turn to poetry for the kind of perspective not found in prose. Matthew Arnold got tonight’s nod, pulled from my bookshelf on the way out to my daughter’s softball practice.

While I know his 1852 poem “The Future” wasn’t written about graduation, it felt like he was whispering to me when he wrote:

A wanderer is man from his birth.
He was born in a ship
On the breast of the river of Time;
Brimming with wonder and joy
He spreads out his arms to the light”

As a principal, I’m inspired to see my wanderers embark on this next voyage. I see in their eyes the wonder and joy Arnold writes about, and I wish for them a grand adventure “on the river of Time.”

I’m certain that these students’ paths will not be straight, and for their sakes I’m happy for that. Who would rather be a soapbox derby car than a jeep exploring the winding roads of a mysterious land?

Arnold ends his poem with a beginning, watching his adventurers…

As the pale waste widens around them,
As the banks fade dimmer away,
As the stars come out, and the night-wind
Brings up the stream
Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.”

I like to think the same for the students leaving our school for lives of their own. Murmuring up our stream is the promise of an infinite sea, where they will live life, a life filled with wonder and joy, just past a horizon where we will be remembering them.