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.

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.

No Clue

I remember the professor as a bespectacled man with a mustache and the colonel as someone pushing well past middle age. Frumpiness was something Mrs. Peacock aspired to, and Miss Scarlet, well…

These memories, so firm in my mind, were the reason that this weekend, when my kids and I removed the cellophane from the new Clue game, I took one look at the cast of characters on the cards and wondered (almost aloud) Who in heaven’s name are they?

newclueIt was an overcast day, my son complained of feeling sick, and with my wife at a conference out of town I knew that the day would be spent mostly indoors. We were about to leave the store, our emergency run for bar soap and cat food complete, when we passed the toy aisle and saw a row of board games marked down 50%. A quick mental inventory told me that we didn’t have a copy of Clue at home. It had been one of my favorites from a childhood of rainy winters, so I scooped up the box and we headed home.

There, sitting at the dining room table with my curious daughter and son, I did my best to keep disgust from my face as I saw that the people on the suspect cards looked like the bratty grandchildren of the group I remembered. Almost at terms with that, I saw they’d changed the layout of the mansion.

Ye gads. It was like comparing Sinatra and Taylor Swift.

But then again, I stopped myself, people like Taylor Swift. Who am I to be a hater gonna hate?

So I took it as a good lesson for me as a principal, specifically as the principal of a school celebrating its 80th anniversary. The feeling I got when I opened that box and found the …modern surprise inside isn’t unlike the emotion that some alumni feel when they visit campus and see that things have changed.

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Construction has been a constant at San Dieguito since FDR was in office, and the addition of our latest building is one of the largest. Opening this fall, our two story math and science building will bring our labs into the twenty-first century, a dramatic shift from a science wing built when Einstein was still alive.

New tennis courts sit beside an updated athletic field. The campus has wireless throughout. In a year we’ll break ground on another classroom building that will replace the portables dropped decades ago in the old agriculture corner of campus. They’re all changes that make sense for our students and by 2020 our school will be a beautiful blend of old and new, ready to serve students for the next 80 years and beyond.

Still…

Earlier this fall I heard an alum who had come on campus for a reunion look up at the new building rising from the ground between the historic 70s wing and the Mosaic Cafe, turn to me, shake his head, and say “the hell?”

We talked a bit about what was old and what was new, his memories and our construction, and finally arrived at an understanding that while many things had changed, not everything was different. And maybe that was okay.

Every generation of Mustangs has their own campus at San Dieguito, with some constants (the principal’s office, the central quad, the bell tower -after 1960) and some differences. Like me looking at the Clue board and wondering where the conservatory went, or when they added a garage, graduates are sometimes thrown by the additions or subtractions to the school. That’s natural, and…

clue-oldPlaying the game with my kids, I realized after a couple of rounds that while Clue isn’t exactly the same, it was just as fun as I remembered, particularly when I looked around the table at the company I got to enjoy.

Mrs. White wasn’t wearing a maid’s uniform, but she was just as capable of wielding a lead pipe in the dining room. Recognizing that our world, and our schools, are dynamic helps me keep perspective. The memories I have are no less sweet, even if Mr. Green can no longer visit the study. Likewise the memories of our alumni are as rich and wonderful as they ever were, and they’re no less meaningful than the memories our current students are creating. Those grandchildren of the original Clue gang, as young as they are, have a place beside my own mutton chopped Colonel Mustard.

Making Time for the Central Coast

Leaving at four in the morning meant avoiding LA traffic and settling in for a cup of coffee in Santa Barbara when the cafe opened at seven. It was a difficult trundling of kids into the car, but well worth it when we had Los Angeles in our rear view mirror and the sun was still new in the sky.

photo-2-3A holiday road trip took us to the Bay Area this December, a trip that had us choose highway 101 and a jaunt to Morro Bay along the way rather than push up Interstate 5 to make it one one long day. It wasn’t the most efficient decision, but it was the right one, as we were surprised with weather warm enough for a picnic, a visit to a favorite book shop, and the sight of a Christmas Tree made out of crab nets and fishing gear.

As a high school principal I’m often faced with choices and tempted to use efficiency as a major factor in the decisions I make. Sometimes this is a wise move; sometimes I’d do better to consider a detour.

Recently new construction has given me an opportunity to balance the end result and the process of getting there. Much as I knew we’d spend Christmas with my niece, I know that by the time we end our first semester in January we need to order furniture for the new science and math building, and by spring break we need to have plans for our next building, an arts and humanities extravaganza, to the Department of State Architects.

As simply as we might have driven straight through from San Diego to Oakland, I know I could have talked with the architect, the furniture vendor, and our district bond team and in an afternoon we could have had a viable plan. Done and done. And not done right. Viable and right are not always the same.

Instead, our architect, furniture vendor, bond team, and I met with teachers. Science teachers tested tabletops, scorching circles into the surfaces to see if they could hold up to a chemistry class. Math teachers sampled desks and student work stations to see what worked for them. Our ceramics teacher visited other schools and came back with photos, drawings, and big ideas. Our other art instructors thought about everything from venting to light to where they could store still life subjects from surfboards to bicycles.

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Meeting after meeting over the course of the first term we talked, strategized, dreamed, faced reality together, tested the patience of our architect and the creativity of our furniture guy, and made decisions that were good for kids.

It wasn’t always easy. The building that was designed four years ago would have benefited from being two rooms larger. Getting everyone to agree on tables and desks was trickier than you’d expect. And putting three art teachers, two bond guys, an architect, and a principal in the same room has the coherency of Chaucer’s House of Fame.

Still, just as getting up before dawn on our road trip wasn’t pleasant, the results promises to be. We’ll end our journey where we belong, and we’ll look back at the way we got there with an appreciation for the longer path we would never have chosen if we’d made the decision based only on efficiency.

Every day I’m reminded of how much being a principal is like being a dad. They’re both challenging and wonderful, fraught with pitfalls and prone to spark strong emotion, and when all is said and done they’re both worth all the stress.

Listening to those around me helps me avoid the many of the mistakes I know I’d make if left to my own devices. My wife makes me a better husband; my teachers and my admin team make me a better principal.

photo-3I most certainly don’t always get things right. Emphatically not. But I hope I can always surround myself with people willing and able to look me in the eye as I’m about to make an efficient decision, a decision that might be so much better if I went a different way, and ask: “What do you think about going to Morro Bay?”

Every ‘80s Movie Principal

The teachers and their spouses arrived to the 1980s themed fall fundraiser in a wave of vintage glory. From an authentic letterman’s jacket to an asymmetrical neon workout outfit, they showed that to teach one must be a performer of sorts, and that for this particular party they were just as gifted at costuming.

Spotting them walk in I asked to take a photo; the all black/all attitude look and popped collars were too good to pass up. They smiled, lined up, and one raised his Lloyd Dobler style boom box above his trench coated shoulders. Awesome.

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Kind as they are, they invited me into the picture. I demurred; I’d chosen a coat and tie, knowing I’d be giving a speech later in the evening. They insisted, and I was forced to publicly admit a lack of costume. Then, with what I imagine affection, a voice corrected me: “No. You’re every principal in every ‘80s movie.”

Before anyone could ask me to describe the ruckus I hopped into the photo.

As a child of the ‘80s, the notion that I’m the guy in the tie is still an odd one. I grew up knowing that as an adult I didn’t want a job where I bought anything, sold anything, or processed anything, I didn’t want to buy anything sold or processed, or sell anything… you get the idea. As an educator, I don’t.

Mine is a job of service, of working hard to try to make a difference, of looking forward, and working toward a future better than our present.

Those goals don’t exactly fit the stereotypes of a principal from my own high school years. Sometimes, however, the day to day duties do.

Just a couple of weeks ago some of our students took to social media to organize a walkout to express their frustration with the outcome of an election that only a few were old enough to vote in. It’s a challenge teenagers have been facing since long before the ‘80s, too young to vote, but old enough to have passionate and informed opinions.

I got an email heads up that morning, and spent the day working with my administrative team to ensure that we followed district protocol, informed parents and teachers, cooperated with partners in law enforcement and at another high school, and came up with a plan that honored our students’ rights while at the same time kept them safe.

Our students handled themselves well, with voices from all political stripes finding a polite and passionate audience. Signs and flags for both sides of the political spectrum dotted the lawn by the amphitheater, and students sat or stood respectfully as my admin team and I kept a perimeter to make sure no uninvited guests crashed the unsanctioned but peaceful protest. Thirty minutes later the bell rang for fourth period and the crowd thanked each other for coming out and headed off to class.

Did I just describe a ruckus?

It wasn’t really much of one; the angriest voices I heard were from community members who phoned me to offer chastisement for “allowing students to believe they had a voice,” “letting kids think that when they graduate they will be able to protest,” and, as one angry gentleman scolded me, “educating a generation of wusses.”

But not all of being a principal, in this decade or any other, is responding to situations. At its best the job is about maintaining a vision for the future and working toward that picture of your school’s best self. It’s not chasing Ferris or telling the kids they can’t dance, but being a good steward to an institution that puts students in positions where they can succeed.

If some of those students dress all in black or like to wear buttons on their jackets, if they want to sport neon legwarmers or Guns ‘n Roses t-shirts, then more power to them. It’s the principal’s job to welcome them all, help them all see the value of listening to each other’s voices, and maybe even see that students, and principals too, transcend the stereotypes people have of them.

The world often looks at educators and students with suspicion and writes them off as agitators or cardboard cutouts. Put more eloquently: “You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain …and an athlete …and a basket case …a princess …and a criminal.”

Am I every principal from every 1980s movie? Trust me, I’ve been called worse.

A Peculiar Principal

Miss Peregrine resonated with me.

My daughter, an avid reader and creative soul, had just finished reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and over the weekend we tromped off to the movie theater to see Tim Burton’s take on the unusual story.

I hadn’t thought about what I might think of the show; every parent knows that taking your kids to the movies is for them, not for you, a lesson I learned when years ago I took my niece to see Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Oops. But that’s a story for another post.

peregrineSo as we settled into the theater it surprised me that from her first appearance at the front door of her home for peculiar children, the fierce, droll, pipe smoking Miss Peregrine struck me as a kindred spirit.

For those as unfamiliar with Ransom Riggs’ book or the new movie as I was, Miss Peregrine is a person with special abilities, particularly around time, who looks after a collection of unique children held in a limbo of time in an effort to keep them safe from a malevolent force manifested in long limbed eyeless creatures invisible to all but a few. Oh, and she can turn into a falcon.

What struck me first, as a high school principal always trying to do his best, was just how deftly Miss Peregrine handled her complicated and high stakes duty. Things weren’t always smooth. How could they be while bending time, watching twins who could turn anyone to stone by removing their masks, or fending off invisible monsters? But she was able to toggle between little issues and big without losing her grin. Eye eating creature climbing up the cliff? Grab the crossbow. Kids squabbling about who gets to play with a teddy bear? Show the wisdom of Solomon.

bear-twinsMiss Peregrine knew that when working with those not yet adult the best approach involves patience, the ability to stay calm, and a certain smiling determination that I’ve seen in the best principals I know.

Efficiently, and maybe a little wild eyed, Miss Peregrine took her job seriously and her self a little less so.

She knew her kids. She knew their quirks and their abilities, their foibles and their aspirations, and not only maintained a clear vision of each as her or his own best self, but she encouraged them to be true to her they were on the inside. What this meant over the course of the story was that what appeared peculiar early on proved to be vital to the success of all by the end of the story. We as an audience might not be able to predict how a curse could be a blessing, but Miss Peregrine, who chose to see the strengths in her students, could.

This didn’t mean that she wasn’t fiercely protective of them, but even as she held aloft a pocket watch to keep them accountable for timeliness, she was willing to let them explore, have adventures beyond the bounds of the home, and push against the boundaries of their world.

missperegrineMiss Peregrine was a problem solver and a guiding hand. She was there for those in her charge not as a friend, the responsibilities of the world are too much for any leader really to be, but as a benevolent and constant force for good puffing on a bent briar.

Protection and encouragement are two issues always on my professional mind, and to see a character, particularly a flawed character, balance both with such grace couldn’t help but inspire.

Literal monsters aren’t storming the gates of my school, but Miss Peregrine’s sense of duty and role as leader of youth feels very real to me. Now if I could just figure out how to turn into a bird.  

The Principal Wears a Suit

5 months ago…

“No tie?”

She was nice enough, but curious, and I sensed disappointment behind her kind eyes. Around us the Winter Formal filled the Air and Space Museum with bright lights, tuxedoed teens, and a string of songs that sounded to me like a series of ring tones. This senior and her date had met me at the front door and posed the question.

“No tie,” I answered, adding “it’s your Winter Formal; I’m just security.”

She looked at me quizzically. “You’re the principal.”

My heart sunk. I hate disappointing nice people.

“Tonight I’m just making sure things go well,” I tried. She wasn’t buying it.

“This is formal, Mr. Paige.”

I looked to my assistant principals for support, two elegantly dressed women who’d been kind enough not to comment on my fleece jacket. They knew, as did the seventeen year old I was talking to, that such things as Winter Formal matter.

For students they matter a lot.

Being an adult means caring about car payments, dental work, and cholesterol. None of these things are as important to the students at my school as strobe lights, pounding bass, or a chocolate fountain.

And yet that impractical chocolate fountain, perhaps because of its impracticability, means much to the young people who are the lifeblood of the school. As their principal it’s important that I invest in the things that matter to them.

I feel paternal to almost two thousand kids; I can at least try to be a good school dad.

This isn’t to say that I don’t listen to Sinatra on my drive down to the dance, but when I get there I should at least be able to tap my feet to the more contemporary tunes.

…and I ought to wear a tie.

 

Saturday…

My assistant principals and I carpooled in to the House of Blues, and as we got to the door the bouncer took one look at us and said (not asked) “Prom.”

One of the best parts of working in education is the possibility of second chances. On Saturday I left informality at home, put on a suit, and enjoyed prom along with a few hundred well dressed juniors and seniors.

I have the pleasure of being their principal, and thanks to the wisdom, kindness, and pluck of an amazing senior I was able to learn that I was wrong. This isn’t just their prom, but our prom, our whole school’s, and I’m fortunate enough to get to be a part of it.

That’s worth wearing a tie.

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