Principal for a day

“We have to get through so much stuff to get them to learn.” That was probably the biggest lesson from my illustrious tenure as “principal for a day” at Paradise High School.

The title was just a courtesy, of course. I didn’t suspend anyone or fire the volleyball coach. Mike Lerch kept the reins; I was just along for the ride.

Lerch just hit the midway point of his third year as principal and ninth at Paradise High. He’s seen where the rubber meets the road, where the dry-erase pen meets the white board, miles from the district office and light years from the Department of Education. To better understand school issues, that’s the vantage I wanted.

I’d braced for a hard reality—not because Paradise is a particularly dangerous place, but because of the prevailing impression that teens care less and act up more these days. I’ve visited 50-some high schools the past 20 years, as a coach or journalist or guest speaker, and I’ve encountered my share of apathetic, anti-authority ’tudes.

Fortunately, no fists went flying. I was there for six hours last Friday (Jan. 18), right before a three-day weekend, so the mood was mellower than usual. That didn’t mean the day was devoid of tension: A police officer got called to the counseling office, and in the first of two lunch periods, Lerch’s old “vice-principal radar” detected a potential fight.

“Ninety-five percent of our kids are great kids and good kids,” Lerch told me in his office. “It’s that 5 percent that get the attention in a negative manner.”

That balance hasn’t changed over his 14 years in education—“the attitude has changed. With a lot of kids, we see a lot of apathy, not connectedness to school.”

So I wasn’t totally off-base. Not totally.

In every classroom, the vast majority of students were attentive, and those who weren’t at least were quiet. I thought this might be a show for the VIP (Lerch, not me); turns out that he regularly visits classes. In fact, going room to room composes the bulk of Lerch’s Friday-morning routine.

He calls it “face-to-face time,” and it’s important. If he’d spent all day, every day in the office, he wouldn’t know so many students personally, and few of the 1,400 would know him; same with the 100 or so employees.

Principals have a lot to bog them down. Just while I was there, Lerch had to deal with the minimum-day schedule, the computer-science curriculum, an angry-mom call, an injured custodian, scholarship applications, sports releaguing proposals and office equipment from a new rental company. Thus, along with education codes, he has to implement labor laws, district policies and CIF regulations.

Yet education isn’t a cookie-cutter proposition. A high school has to accommodate students with physical needs, psychological needs, remedial needs, while providing for the gifted, athletic and artistic ones as well.

My biggest takeaway is that improving our kids’ education hinges on many factors beyond educators’ control. Forget budgets, forget testing, forget buzzwords—focus on the fact that every teen comes to school with individual challenges.

“We have to get through so much stuff to get them to learn,” Lerch told me. That’s not a cop out; it’s just reality.