High School Teacher/Teacher Leader • Athletic Coach • High School Assistant Principal • High School Principal • Assistant Superintendent • Educational Consultant and Trainer • Leadership Coach • Entrepreneur • Principal, Grossmont High School, Grossmont Union High School District •
Founding Principal, Mission Hills High School, San Marcos Unified School District
Assistant Superintendent, HR, San Marcos Unified School District
Certified Trainer, Situational Leadership II, The Ken Blanchard Company
Areas of Expertise
Developing a School Culture Designed to Flourish
Team Building and Group Facilitation
How to Cast a Vision that Produces Tremendous Results
Enhancing the Performance of School Site Administrators
I lived almost every high school principal’s nightmare.
And it changed everything.
I was midway through my second year as a principal, at Grossmont High School in La Mesa, CA when the first tragedy struck.
We were considered a good school and I felt I had the tools to lead it. There were the inevitable challenge that come with an aging staff, many of whom were not open to change but the school community had many elements that were extremely positive: A diverse student body, ethnically, linguistically, socio-economically. Vibrant student activities and a strong school spirit born from the knowledge that it was the flagship school of the district with a rich history and many wonderful traditions. I felt I was the right person for the job and, with time, we would develop programs and approaches that would pay dividends for many years to come.
Then, one of my seniors jumped from the Coronado bridge. He was an athlete and successful student and it shocked everyone. This was not my first suicide as a high school staff member but my first as a principal. We received a great deal of support and, as tragic as this was, I knew we would move beyond it with time and care.
Two months later, another of my students committed suicide. Coming so close on the heals as the first one, this death compounded everything. The school community was shaken and it was hard to ignore the impact on our campus. School leaders who have lost a student will understand. We are used to car accidents, illnesses, even the terrible fact of a drug overdose. But suicide is different.
This story has quite aways to go.
One month later, on March 5, 2001, while I was in a classroom, my secretary radioed me to immediately return to the office. I learned there that there had just been a shooting at the high school adjacent to us, led by a good friend of mine, with whom we had “come up through the ranks.” This was still in the era where these things were not as common as they have unfortunately become. Columbine had occurred in 1999 but you didn’t expect it to happen at home.
I rushed over to our sister school, Santana High School in Santee, CA, where the principal grabbed me and said, “Don’t leave my side.” 30 minutes later she and I were in a booth in a Taco Bell adjacent to the campus to tell a mother and father that their child had died. One of the assistant principals, who I had helped train, had held that child in her arms as he perished.
The world descended and our community was fully in shock. Two suicides and two students shot and killed.
Teachers and students didn’t want to come to school. I was stretching myself to the breaking point on how to hold the school together.
Seventeen days later, on March 22, a student who I had sent to another school in our district, Granite Hills High School, shot up the school, wounding (but not killing) both students and staff. That was a Thursday. On Sunday evening, I received a call that one of my students had hanged himself in a public park and was on life support. I arrived at the hospital to try to comfort the family. On Monday, my fourth student committed suicide by intentional drug overdose.
I lost my school.
You can’t imagine what it was like. The entire community was in disarray. Staff and students sobbing uncontrollably. I was stretched beyond my limits. Why was this happening? I knew to stay calm and focused in a tragedy, as a school leader, but this was an entirely different thing.
That was the week before spring break when I learned what it takes to redefine school culture. I’ve never forgotten the lessons and it changed my leadership model forever.
But, the story is still not finished.
We limped and stumbled to the end of the year, perhaps exemplifying those pictures of the early Minutemen soldiers, bedraggled but alive. The summer brought respite, distance and a whole mountain of resources to help us start the school year and move forward.
Two weeks after the first day, I was in my office early when a staff member rushed in to tell me to turn on the TV. 9/11. I went on the public address system to break the news, while trying to make sense of what was happening and how to lead the staff and students through such an awful day.
The next day, a freshman girl put a gun to her head and became my fifth suicide in eleven months. We were now a national statistic. A Suicide Cluster. We were a good school with no indicators that such a thing would be the case. Five suicides. Two school shootings.
I knew that my life and my leadership would never be the same. I vowed to do everything I could to understand and address any underlying conditions and issues that would lead to such nightmarish realities.
I learned a great deal in the next year and we became a model school in the region for how to promote social and emotional health and how to create a schoolwide culture that has the best chance of thriving. We created vision and teams, implemented interventions and techniques that ended up framing the rest of my career.
But, that’s not the end of the story.
Early in the fall of 2002 and largely because of what we (and I) had gone through, I was recruited to be the founding principal of Mission Hills High School in San Marcos, CA. At first I turned it down, feeling too committed to stay at Grossmont. But, one thing led to the next and by December I was wearing a hard hat with the Superintendent’s support giving me incredibly wide latitude to begin the new school right.
In the next 21 months, I thought of everything I could to establish a school culture that would promise the greatest chance of success for all stakeholders: Students, staff, parents and community members.
We were to be another very diverse school community. Ethnically diverse. 50% Latino. No real wealthy pockets but a large middle class with a good share of poverty. Immigrants. A local barrio. Significant gang activity in the area. Modest test scores by any measure. I would inherit 50% of the existing single high school’s staff, many of whom had made due with bad administrators and a complacent culture. We had our work cut out for us.
Four years later, we received our first full WASC accreditation. A six year clear. The visiting team identified only one area of growth and that was to keep doing what we were doing. We had become the highest performing school of diversity in San Diego. From an API of 5/5, we were now a 9/10 and a California Distinguished School. Many staff admitted that they’d had no idea how great a school could be and could not imagine working anywhere else.
I’ve alluded to the why of all of this. The how is something else. Before retiring, I had the chance to mentor many emerging leaders: teachers, assistant principals and principals when I was an assistant superintendent. In a sense, there’s an objective formula but it requires paying attention and prioritizing what school leaders do on a daily basis.
When tragedy struck in a big way at Mission Hills and, once again, I was a consistent feature on the local TV news, we had the means to navigate through difficult times.
I used to say to my assistant principals that, as school officials, our lives can change in an instant. This is completely true. We are on the edge, out front for the world to see. We face so many demands for our attention, it becomes difficult to prioritize and figure out exactly how to allocate our resources. But, the good news is that we leaders have the Means, once we understand, to make a true difference. The only thing missing is the Will.