Farewell to Vig
Retiring architect of Chico’s alternative ed programs will be missed
Had Bernie Vigallon chosen to spend his workdays behind a principal’s desk or his after-5 hours on a golf green, he might today be a typical, retiring public-school administrator.
Instead, for 20 years, he roamed the grounds of the Chico continuation school he presided over, busting pot smokers and herding kids to class. At the end of the school day, he often visited families, occasionally bought them groceries, or attended expulsion hearings.
On one occasion, Vigallon noticed a student was missing critical last days before her graduation from Fair View, where he has served as principal almost consistently since 1988. He and another CUSD administrator went to her home, pulled her out of a den of methamphetamine users and bought her clothes. She was able to walk the stage on graduation night with her class and has since established herself in a career in which she now works with teens.
Vigallon—he’s known on the streets as “Vig”—retires Friday (June 3) as Fair View principal and as the district’s director of alternative education. In the latter position, Vigallon built a program that now serves 500 students—kids who suffer from alienation or abuse, who struggle with learning issues or got lost at mainstream schools, or who became immersed in delinquency or drugs.
Many people believe 63-year-old Vigallon has built Butte County’s most effective crime-prevention program; without doubt, he’s built one of the largest alternative-education programs in a California school district of CUSD’s size.
Since 1988, Vigallon has worked to expand Fair View, where 82 percent of the students are identified as economically disadvantaged. At the same time, Vigallon launched the Academy for Change, a community day school for youth who have been expelled from district schools or sentenced to time in juvenile hall. At the highly structured AFC, students must wear a shirt and tie and in some cases undergo regular drug testing.
“There isn’t any other safety net for many of these kids,” Vigallon said of the alternative-ed program. Without continuation programs, Vigallon said it’s reasonable to assume that “a segment of these kids who have had a difficult past would end up in incarceration of some sort. You can’t compete with a community college student for a job, so what are you going to end up doing? Communities that don’t have these programs have higher crime rates.”
To those who have worked with Vigallon, he’s always been more than an administrator—he’s been someone able to make profound connections with many people. At Fair View’s May 25 graduation—his last as principal—Vigallon was introduced as “the Godfather.”
In truth, Vigallon is part village godfather, part inspirational teacher and part tough, charismatic coach. But don’t expect to see his story in an inspirational Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon; the paradox is that while Vigallon can steal a stage with his bellowing voice, biting humor and stories of redemption, he shuns praise and shifts the spotlight whenever he can to staff, his family or his students themselves.
It may be that he fears becoming a cliché that would rob his accomplishments of the lessons they provide. At the Fair View graduation, senior Shaquaya Henry asked her fellow students how many of them found their lives changed by Vigallon. Hundreds of arms shot up in the Masonic Lodge auditorium. There are apparently thousands of testimonies to that effect.
Barbara Fredrickson, who graduated 18 years ago from Fair View and now works as a claims examiner for insurance companies in Merced, recalled in a telephone interview a turning point in her life. Though she had grown up in Merced, she had been placed in foster care in Chico and enrolled at Fair View.
One afternoon, she and a couple of boys sneaked off campus, hid in an alley and smoked pot. Suddenly, a few feet away, she saw Vigallon facing them and heard him thunder: “Don’t move and don’t drop anything.”
“We were busted,” Fredrickson said. “I had never been more scared. Someone had been on the phone with him and had described, literally, each of us.”
Fredrickson was suspended, and when she returned to Fair View she was determined to avoid any more foolish mistakes that might cost her foster placement. She graduated, attended Butte College, and when she returned to Merced pushed her siblings to complete high school. Fredrickson and three siblings were the first generation of high school graduates in a family that for several generations had depended on welfare.
Vigallon seems to know that the future of the programs he built depends not on the force of his personality, but on a community’s willingness to support schools that give teens second and third chances to rise above what are often tough circumstances. He’s also worked to expand the district’s GED program.
“These kids have the same aspirations as other kids, but their original schools were too big, too fast,” Vigallon said. “We try to show them that they’re not facing a glass barrier, but a sliding glass door, and we can get there together.”
The alternative-ed programs are based on goal-setting, accountability and recognition when students achieve objectives. In 1997, Vigallon was named “Director of the Year” by the California Continuation Education Association.
Fair View Assistant Principal David McKay will take over as principal after working closely with Vigallon for more than four years. McKay says he’s learned a lot from Vigallon about credibility.
“Whenever there was a bad situation, or a near crisis, I found that he had always gotten one in the bank with a person, or with a family, or with a community group,” McKay said. “He’s a master at building and sustaining relationships. Trust is a huge element of Vig.
“I can’t imagine trying to replace him,” McKay added. “But I’ve been on the inside track for four years. I can see how he built the programs. And I know what he’d do if he had another 30 years.”