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.

construction cartoon

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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Hammer Time

roofThe kids are at the beach; the teachers are on their way to vacations, good books, and (for some) even conferences. Administrators are around, wrapping up loose ends and watching construction crews descend on our campuses, their job beginning as our school year ends. It’s a topsy-turvy time, the quiet of a school without students juxtaposed with the growl of heavy machinery and the rattle of pneumatic drills.

By the time the kids get back in August campus will look very different. Here at Diegueño Proposition AA funds are transforming our media center into a state of the art learning space. Flexible, technology rich, and student friendly, our library will provide Diegueño with an academic heart of campus.

Along with huge upgrades to our technology infrastructure –literally 100 times improved wireless and the capacity for all our students to access the technology they need to learn– the media center project is the largest improvement ever seen at our almost thirty year old campus.

This summer’s improvements are part of a multi-year vision for Diegueño, and as with any construction project, ours is a collaboration. To watch our architect, contractors, suppliers, and district personnel work together inspires me. This coordinated effort to achieve meaningful results is a real-life example of the best of education at work.

I see in our architect the person our math and science focused students might become. Planning, communicating, and articulating a vision for the space, our architect shows what can happen when Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs are enriched with a pinch of the arts (some call this STEAM), and a student translated her learning into a career she loves.

Grounded and gruff, I see in my project foreman the adult version of the organized ASB student who takes big ideas and transforms them into brick and mortar reality. Just as a jog-a-thon or school dance can’t happen without someone to stay centered and mind the details, so too our big school improvement projects happen only when someone coordinates the many moving parts.

Schools, of course, are like this, and while we don’t see students ripping out drywall or climbing tress with chainsaws, the collaborative nature of a project like ours, with the planning, producing, and problem solving is increasingly what education is all about. No one at our weekly construction meetings is showing off how many state capitals he’s memorized or how well she can do long division; the measure of success is the ability to work together, adapt to unexpected challenges, and create something of consequence.

That consequential result will be on display for all when school starts up in the fall. Until then I’m blessed with a catbird seat for great collaboration, and a reminder of how important it is for us to raise kids who are able to work together, think, adapt, and produce results. I’m excited to see Diegueño students learn those skills in our new media center, and they won’t even need to wear hard hats.