“ACMA isn’t a building.”

What elevated the ceremony into something to be remembered were the powerful and heartfelt words of the three ACMA students who spoke at the groundbreaking for ACMA’s new campus, the many students and staff in attendance, and the smiles and laughter when the kids (all of them who wanted to) got to pose in front of the heavy machinery holding ceremonial shovels. 

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In the fall of 2021 Arts & Communication Magnet Academy will open our new building on the original Center Street location where we have been making art and making memories since the school was born. The transformation will be profound, the mid century elementary school building that warmed our hearts with nostalgia, but whose antiquated radiators could no longer reliably warm our classrooms, replaced by a modern building designed to be an art school.

At the groundbreaking on Saturday, Heidi Chuc-Garcia, a senior, spoke first, providing her thoughts in verse:

I’m from a hallway with murals on the walls.
I’m from classroom that reflects teachers personalities.
I’m from having lunch in the hallways, classrooms, portables, and outside.
I’m from a strange place,
A hallway with dim lights and slightly colored water
Where some classrooms were too hot and some were too cold.
I’m a burrito smelling class in Walker’s room after lunch
To the broken windows in Kraxy’s, Alby’s, Gottshall’s, and Lupe’s rooms
And being bushed and bumped by seniors in sixth grade
And falling and tripping over rolling backpacks.
And I’m from music blasting from some of the school speakers
From 7:25 to 7:30
And watching four teachers push their carts up and down hills
And through the hallway.
This is a place where artists were pushed and inspired.
I was always mesmerized by the art around me.
I’m from a place where teachers have a passion for what they teach
And is shows, it really does.
I’m from supporting staff and teachers who believe in me.

The truth is, that while this location represents those memories,
It’s not about the building, and never has been.
You see, I’m still making these memories
With my friends and teachers at the new building
Because ACMA is its people
Its students and teachers and staff.
This place only encapsulates some of those memories
It renders them, and that’s okay
Because we carry them.
It’s been a long journey, and today’s an important day
Because it’s the commencement of a new chapter
And although I won’t be here when it’s finished
I can’t describe how excited I am for the returning students.

So I guess it shouldn’t be ‘I’m from this place…”
Or ‘I’m from those memories and those experiences…’
It should me more:
‘I am ACMA!’
‘You are ACMA!’
‘We are ACMA!’

So we better take care of ACMA
At our current building and its future home,
Filling it with love, admiration, and the respect it deserves.”

Better perspective, and from a student who will herself never take a class in the new building, cannot be imagined.

Lauren Camou spoke next. The only student of the three who will graduate from the new campus, she looked forward to the changes to come. She said:

I have been here since sixth grade and will be the second class to graduate in the new building. ACMA has been a very welcoming and safe environment for me and I couldn’t be happier to be here for the seven years I get. I love all of the staff and all the students I see everyday. 

Where we are standing now, was our school. This building that is no longer here was a big part of us. The one hallway that kept us all so close, united us. The Tom Marsh, the Batcave, the different class murals, and even the hidden parts of the building that most students never see kept our history in the walls of this building quite literally. 

And although we were able to take the class murals with us, the building is gone. But we’re still the same. We still help one another and spread kindness everywhere we can, just in a bigger and temporary building. In two years, we’ll be here again, in our new space. 

We’ll still be ACMA, of course, and we’ll still support each other, because that’s just who we are, and that won’t change.”

Such wisdom in youth is the reason I’m so optimistic about the future of our school and our world.

Annika McNair finished the set, beginning her speech with a well chosen quotation from Tolkien.

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.” That’s a quote about Bilbo from JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I share this quote because it largely describes ACMA students on their approach to the temporary school.

We’re still a little heartbroken from leaving the old one. We’ll never be able to see the same halls, or the trees outside the windows of class, but I think in the last week or two we’ve had a little bit of a redeeming realization. ACMA isn’t a building; it’s a home we carry with us, and maybe it’s the people we meet or the passion of arts that we share, but we’ve created a sense of family that extends beyond the sentimentality of a building.

Even so, when we gathered to watch the live feed of the demolition it wasn’t hard to miss the loss we all felt. We were in a place that allowed us to love and so we learned to love the place. Today we are gathered to celebrate what is going to be the new ACMA building. When it is finished and we move again, trotting along like little Bilbo, I’ve no doubt the new building will provide the same space to keep our home.”

The rest of us adults who spoke did our best to commemorate this momentous occasion. We’ve all been on the planet long enough to know that days like this are rarer than we’d like, and that having something so grand to look forward to is a treasure beyond measure. Some of us also know how important this is for ACMA; a groundbreaking on a building like this could scarcely be imagined in the early years of Arts & Communication, and I’ll suggest that a few of the tears in the audience were in honor of the journey our little art school has taken in the past (almost) thirty years.

But while we adults were earnest and articulate, I know that what people will remember from the day is the words of the kids. As they should.

Because, as I mentioned in my brief remarks, we are not building this school for any of the adults at the podium. ACMA is for the kids, the dreamers, the artists, the future.

everyone

If you missed Saturday’s soiree, you can find a video of it here!

When Blossoms Do

Actually seeing it disappear, transform into kindling and rubble, feels surreal. To see the inside of Ms. Metz’s ceramics studio piled chest high with debris, the roof gone, the windows gaping open like a mouth caught in the middle of a gasp, is difficult to take in. Those familiar hallways, now made strange by engines of destruction, are melting into the earth. In a few days all of the original CE Mason Elementary building will be down, our familiar campus living on only in memories (and a pretty cool virtual walkthrough).

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For an emotional school, as we confessedly are, saying goodbye is like watching an old friend walk out of our life. It is hard not to turn away from the images of demolition, and just as hard not to watch. Some of the most artistic spectators seemed to bring the most positive perspective to the enterprise, Ms. Metz saying (upon seeing her studio falling under heavy machinery) “Hey, that’s the ceramics room! Well, it was for many years …but it’s time to knock it down and start over again.”

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Knowing that ACMA will be back on Center Street in the fall of 2021 helps, and knowing that the new campus, built for ACMA and meant to be an art school helps too. And as hard as it is to see the old campus going away, when I was able to visit last week my heart bounced when I turned a corner in the PAC and saw wood from the original wainscoting stacked up, ready to be used to make the circulation desk in the new library.

That visit reminded me of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a bit of 1866 verse ostensibly about spring.

When they come back — if Blossoms do —
I always feel a doubt
If Blossoms can be born again
When once the Art is out —

When they begin, if Robins may,
I always had a fear
I did not tell, it was their last Experiment
Last Year,

When it is May, if May return,
Had nobody a pang
Lest in a Face so beautiful
He might not look again?

If I am there — One does not know
What Party — One may be
Tomorrow, but if I am there
I take back all I say —

Right now, today, “Art is out” on Center Street. Sure, it has really just migrated eleven minutes up the road to where it’s hiding as robins do in winter, but those of us prone to sentimentality feel the collective pang.

IMG_0605Will ACMA, like Dickinson’s May flowers, return? Will we be there after all, not knowing what one’s party may be tomorrow?

Yes.

Like spring, and robins, and the blossoms that brighten the world, artists and actors, musicians and poets, creative spirits and our always experimenting ACMA community will be back home soon.

When we do, in a building designed to celebrate and encourage that ACMA spirit, those feelings (our autumn rain and winter chill) can disappear, kindling and rubble replaced by the blossoms of art.

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The New Place

This summer our little art school is packing up and moving eleven minutes up the road to a temporary home in a yet to be opened middle school. We’ll be there two years, as bulldozers raze the CE Mason Elementary School building that has been ACMA’s home since the school opened in 1992, and crews begin building our new campus, which will open in the fall of 2021. It will be amazing.

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Looking ahead to the new place, it’s exciting to know that for the first time in our school’s history we’ll be making art, making music, and making meaning in a building constructed for our school and its unique focus. Gone will be the elementary classrooms converted in to ceramics studios, dance rooms, and science labs. Gone will the the portables out back, sagging with age, but still (miraculously) places from which film, music, and dance students have created professional level art for years. Gone too will be the need to use the library as a classroom, hold choir class in the house of the auditorium, or watch students eat lunch in a Quonset Hut without running water.

Truth be told, it has been fun saying we have a campus with a Quonset Hut, but that doesn’t mean we’ll miss it all that much day to day.

Our arts and communication programs will finally have the facilities they need and deserve. A new painting and drawing studio, a new design lab for animation and design classes, and a new ceramics studio will anchor the building on the main level of a two story building. Facing out onto a large commons, with a stage built perfectly for open mic nights and impromptu concerts, these three visual art rooms will be built to be studios, not converted elementary classrooms. To know that our students will have these spaces to create is inspiring, and, to introduce a clunky metaphor, it feels like the road has finally caught up with the cars.

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Just south of the visual arts rooms, a new film complex will take the place of the portable we’ve used for years. Inside will be editing equipment, three separate film studios, and enough room for screening films for a class full of students. Located centrally, this film area will be a place where students can learn their craft with the technology and infrastructure they need, and have access to campus without having to pass by every classroom in session.

Also on the main floor, tucked between a new kitchen, the library, and the existing PAC, is a new music wing. With two large rooms, a recording studio, and practice rooms, this addition to ACMA replaces a low ceilinged portable and a white board rolled into the Blue Box theatre as the home of music at ACMA. Adjacent to the performing arts center, which will be connected to the main building by two interior hallways, these rooms give ACMA musicians the upgrade they need to continue making music -jazz, orchestral, and choral- a cornerstone of our arts program.

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Upstairs three dance studios jut out from the eastern wall, roofs raised and windows ample for light. These practice spaces, larger than our current facilities, are next to two changing rooms with lockers inside for dancers’ gear. That our dancers will no longer have to change clothes in a bathroom is as welcome as it is overdue. Add to that the fact that all three studios will be inside the building, better for supervision and safety, and our dance program will find itself in a professional space worthy of its caliber.

Across the hall from the dance rooms, separated by an open gallery and collaboration space, is a photo room, much larger than the smaller CE Mason space, complete with darkroom. Most places don’t still teach with actual film, focusing exclusively on digital photography, but ACMA is not most places. Here we recognize that there is something magical about photos, negatives, and working in the darkroom. Our photography students graduate from ACMA with a richer foundation and more comprehensive understanding, and the darkroom that will be a part of our new construction continues that tradition we’re proud to hold onto.

In addition to the upgraded arts facilities, the new library, full kitchen, and the commons area, the new building will have two high school science labs as nice as any in the district, as well as two middle school science labs, a first in our school’s history. The two middle school labs are part of the additional four teaching spaces that will be a part of the new campus, and we shouldn’t need to use the library as a classroom.

Those classrooms get upgrades too. While the current campus has portables with classrooms of less than 600 square feet, classrooms in the new building will average more than 900 square feet, come equipped with projectors or large screens that can connect to computers, and new furniture. We’ll make them our own, with classroom libraries for the English rooms and that sort of thing, but they’ll all rise in quality to meet the district specs that guide all new construction.

I’m even told they’ll warm up in the winter, heated by a 21st century system, not a boiler older than most of our teachers.

Outside students will find the familiar, and much loved, single basketball hoop, behind it not the breakable windows of the science lab (Mr. Kraxberger will be happy), but a mural wall (blank when we move in, but not for long), outdoor seating for lunch, and space enough for a class to meet outside or a play to be performed al fresco.

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A walking path and student garden will live in the grassy area north of the building, with enough open space for students to play, as they do now in the interior courtyard and outside the portables. It should also give us enough space for an amazing putt-putt golf tournament on the last day of school.

Traditions like putt-putt golf will go with us to our temporary home as well, and it’s important to know that when we move back into our permanent campus in 2021 we will bring to that space the ACMA spirit that has grown in our current building over the past quarter century. At ACMA we love murals, music in the mornings, and our Hallway of Hope and Justice; holding on to those traditions and eccentricities that help to define us as a school will help to make our new construction feel like home.

To that end we’re planning to recycle some of the wainscoting from the hallway for our circulation desk in the library and reception area in the front office. The art we can save we will, and the art painted on plaster that can’t be removed we’re making large, high qualities photos of to serve as our first art show. They’re pretty cool and will be going with us to the new building.

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All that said, it’s still an emotional time at ACMA. Many teachers have been here for years, and some for nearly all of their careers, and to lose this gem is heart-wrenching. Add to that the uncertainty of moving into a building we haven’t seen, one still on architects’ drawings, small boxes hardly able to represent the living, breathing spaces that will house learning two and a half years from today. There is no vibrancy in a printed map like what we’ll experience once we move home, and in the absence of that understanding it’s easy for concern to grow.

But vibrant we are and vibrant we will be. For the next two years we will bring our artistic exuberance to our “rental” and then in the fall of 2021 we will host an opening night like no one has ever seen as we bring up the curtain on our new building.

We are not a comprehensive high school, nor built to be; we are Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, and the new campus will be designed and built for students to learn and create for the next 75 years, if not beyond.

Rat Slabs and Bollards

IMG_8010Occasionally there were moments of levity, like the time late in the afternoon when there was some confusion about the garbage can washing station and someone cut to the chase and described it as an “industrial bidet.” Just yikes.

Sitting at a long conference table with a dozen experts in plumbing, electrical, and engineering, I was a stranger in a strange land, a principal at a day long construction meeting. It’s a part of the job that I was not trained for; I got into education to teach kids English. As a principal, however, and a principal at a school preparing to undergo major construction, it’s important for me to able to take my seat at the gathering of those folks who make a living by designing, constructing, and making buildings work and be more than a spectator. I need to pay attention, listen, learn, and participate.

So yesterday from ten in the morning until after five o’clock at night we talked through more than 300 items, reviewing, accepting, and writing comments on everything from rat slabs to bollards …so many bollards.

IMG_8012I wasn’t the biggest expert in the room; I’m an educator, not a builder, but the many voices who joined the meeting were, and their perspectives (under the guiding hand of our gifted project manager) informed the design of a school that will truly benefit kids.

I get asked sometimes if I hate going to construction meetings, especially so close to the start of the school year when there are things to be done on site and my attention needs to go toward preparing for teachers and students to return to campus. My answer is a resounding no.

How important is it that the principal know the voltage of the hand dryers? Maybe not that much. But for the dozen times I needed to speak up and offer the school’s point of view on things like the importance of LED track lighting for displaying artwork in the hallways or the need to make the commons a true performance space, my presence and focus were very important.

IMG_8014For nine of my ten years as a site administrator I’ve worked at schools undergoing construction. I’ve redone two libraries, overseen three campus spanning trenching and data rewiring projects, and been a part of designing and constructing a two story science and math building. I’ve had the opportunity to plan, work with architects, and put on a hard hat year after year, and 2018-2019 sees the start of the biggest project of my professional life: we’re razing the beloved and antiquated current building and replacing it with all new construction.

This is a big build, independent of the challenges we face to save and honor existing student artwork and decades of rich history, and one that will be a success because of the many, many professionals each contributing their expertise (on everything from HVAC to soffits to I beams).

At our review meeting the team systematically worked through question after question, discussing what needed to be done, cross referencing city and state ordinances, and talking through district standards and school requirements. Today’s meeting involved many experts on specific aspects of construction.

In the morning the civil engineers were there, talking exterior details with the landscape architects. My contributions were modest, but the information I heard will be important as I talk with my staff, students, and parents.

By late morning we’d moved inside, discussing the layout of the new kitchen, ovens, refrigeration, and a wire wall. We talked structural challenges, risk management offering ideas to avoid encouraging indoor parkour in our commons, maintenance discussing polished concrete and long term durability, and our architects lobbying to maintain the aesthetics of a marvelous wood and metal feature near the main staircase.

IMG_8013HVAC and plumbing followed a working lunch, with discussions of redundancy, talk of fans, vents, and water heaters filling the construction trailer where we were meeting. A rousing debate about ductwork put us behind schedule, all of us rummy and a little tired. It was then that the renewing laughter from that daring description of the garbage can washing station gave us enough energy to smile and keep going. We dove into electrical, IT, and AV.

Throughout the day my appreciation for the expertise of those many individuals grew and grew. This was collaboration incarnate. My school of the future will be better because Leslie knows building, Jane knows architecture, and Chris knows everything.

It’s meetings like today’s that give me a thorough and profound understanding of my site. They are an opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone, be an advocate for my school, and help contribute in a small but useful way to the important work of building something amazing.

Thoughtful Destruction

“Masters, be kind to the old house that must fall”
-Julia Randall

At the end of the road is a sparkling new building, good for students, a haven for learning, modern, marvelous, and built to be an art school. That road, however, is anything but smooth.

Winding, filled with potential potholes, and paved over sacred ground, the path to progress promises to try our souls.

In a little more than a year our current campus will swell with the sound of hammering, bulldozers, and a great moving of earth. Construction fencing will circle our school, and looking down at the commotion within those plywood and chain link walls, the birds that fly overhead will witness the destruction of our old and wonderful building and the construction of something new.

IMG_7105Our current home, formally CE Mason Elementary School and home to ACMA for the past quarter century, is covered with meaningful student art, regarded with well deserved affection, and packed with more vivid memories than a Terrence Malick film.

This June, as the last summer we’ll spend in this building arrives, feels like a time of calm before the emotional storm, a chance to take a deep breath before piloting this splendid old ship into the dock for the last time.

As we do, we’re in the opening stages of planning the new building. Our architects are presenting ideas to the staff, and meeting with teachers from programs in need of special infrastructure (where to put the kiln, what kind of acoustics we need in the recording studio, what we mean by a 21st century darkroom). Our Urban Design students have taken a field trip to the architects’ office, where they presented their own ideas about what our school needs. In a comic aside, I asked at our last meeting: “Did they include the place to stable the therapy llama?” and for a few seconds everyone at the table paused, considering that that might be something our ACMA students would suggest. It was marvelous.

And as the architects are capturing on paper as much creative vision as the budget will allow, we as a school community are doing our best to wrap our heads around the idea that in just over a year CE Mason will be gone.

IMG_3784If our building was only a building, that wouldn’t feel so wrenching, but CE Mason Elementary, home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, is more than a building; it’s home.

This building has seen decades of students pass through its doors, nervous sixth graders, confident graduates, extroverts, introverts, and an assortment of artists and those willing to see life artistically.

…and art students did to CE Mason what art students do: they filled it with art.

Art appears everywhere in our current building. Student murals from the twenty-six years ACMA has been in existence fill our hallways, peek around corners, and smile down on the students as they walk to classes.

IMG_6246Mona Lisa, in full ‘90s grunge uniform of flannel shirt and backward baseball cap, smiles enigmatically toward the north. A canine Mona Lisa looks south, her muzzle a doggy smile. And hidden in plain sight, a collection of images tucked brilliantly in a complicated corner near the main office provides a fantastic version of Da Vinci’s most famous portrait, a reminder that art can be as playful as it is refined, as clear as it is heartfelt.

Contemporary student art hangs alongside the installations from years past. Paintings, drawings, sculptures in wire and clay all turn our hallways into a living gallery. Without lockers interrupting sightlines, it’s possible to stroll from the library to the math classrooms on the far end of the building and see canvasses hung at eye level, untouched but never unappreciated, every day. It is astounding.

In a little more than a year, it will be gone.

And yet…

…it won’t.

IMG_3856You’ll hear some artists talk about the impermanence of art, Picasso’s line: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” and such, but truth be told, even if we admit that the comfort is cold. The images that fill ACMA’s hallways, whether they’ve been there for five years, ten, or twenty, are part of our collective soul, and aren’t easy to lose.

But, painted on sixty year old plaster, the murals can’t be cut out or peeled off. While we’ll be able to save some three dimensional pieces, we’ve got to be more creative about the others. More than a year out, we’re already working on it.

We know that how we approach this opportunity will help define us …and believe in the idea of thoughtful destruction.

So, we will save what we can, we will capture what we can’t in creative ways (film, high resolution photographs that we can enlarge and display, and a couple of other creative solutions) that allow it to live on, and we will celebrate everything.

IMG_7350We will remember what James Baldwin said of life and art: “Nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”
And we will be those witnesses to our past, active participants in our present, and creators of our future. We will celebrate the history of ACMA’s first home and build on the creative spirit that defines our school as we continue to create.

I’ve said before that ACMA could be ACMA in a circus tent. We are the people who fill our school, the magic of creativity, and the commitment to making art. More than any building or campus, ACMA is a state of mind. So over the course of the next school year we will mourn, make art, move forward together, embracing the process with the hearts of artists.

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.

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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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?”

Window Boxes

photoWhen the structural steel went up, so high it peeked over the wing of classrooms built in 1936, everyone on campus paused and exhaled a collective “oh.”

The newest classroom building, an inch less high than the city will allow, will bring state of the art science labs to a school whose chem room was built when Einstein was still alive. Knowing the decades of labs students will perform in the years ahead is enough to make anyone excited about the idea of the new building, but it was seeing that enormous metal skeleton rise up in the center of campus that shook all of us past the idea and held the reality of the thing up for us to marvel at.

New construction brings with it a mix of anticipation, annoyance, and awe. Our new building, so impressive now, spent months in the dirt. Before any resemblance to an actual building came planning, digging, and the construction of retaining walls. To see it rise from that dirt now, as loud as some of the steel work may be, is inspiring. Helping our school community admire that progress is one of the best decisions I’ve seen around a high school construction site: windows.

photo 4Knowing the curiosity of students (and teachers too), we asked our construction team if, when they put up the extensive plywood fencing around the big dig, they’d add a couple of plexiglass windows so we could see what was going on. Better than “a couple,” they cut a row of windows along two sides of the project and the result has been nothing less than amazing.

Windows in a wooden wall invite spectators, and those views of our school’s future provide our students and staff with a clear understanding of progress, an unimpeded glimpse of scale, and a total lack of mystery in what can sometimes feel like a less than transparent process.

photo 5They also provide an opportunity for creativity.

Around the windows, teams of student artists have painted murals that include the windows as focal points and show that whimsy and heavy machinery can coexist as long as both wear a smile.

…and then our ASB students added window boxes.

We have another twelve months before classes begin in the labs and classrooms of our new building, but as we watch the steel grow, the feeling on campus is one of excitement. You can see it through the windows.

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