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Principal's New Assignment Is a 'Dream Come True' : Longtime Teacher Takes Charge of Catalina Schools

September 24, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

The last thing Jon Meyer does before retiring each night is leave water out for the deer.

Most mornings he awakes to the sound of quail in his yard.

And on weekends he likes to go fishing or sailing.

"I'm having more fun in education now than I've had since I was a youngster," says the new principal of Santa Catalina Island's two schools, run by the Long Beach Unified School District. "This is like a dream come true."

Major Change

In fact, moving to the island was a major change for Meyer, who is 51. A lifelong resident of Long Beach, he and his family have long been associated with Wilson High School, where for the past 16 years he had taught history and anthropology and coached football and tennis. His father, Cliff Meyer, a member of the school's first graduating class and football team, coached there from 1942 to 1967. And Meyer, who graduated from Wilson in 1953, married a fellow graduate and sent two children through the school.

So when district officials recently asked him to take up the reins in Avalon, Meyer hesitated--for about six seconds.

"I like small towns, I like small kids and I like the out-of-doors," he says of his first full-time administrative assignment. "It was a rare opportunity."

To make the move more palatable, the district agreed to transfer Meyer's wife, Sylvia, already a school employee, to Catalina, where she now works as a librarian and reading specialist. And since arriving on the island earlier this summer, the two have been living in a trailer on the edge of the Avalon school grounds, waiting to occupy their permanent quarters in about two weeks. "It's sort of like camping out," is how Meyer describes it.

But there are professional as well as personal reasons for making the move, he says. In a district largely dominated by busing and overcrowding, Catalina has remained relatively unscathed. In an era when pupils increasingly attend schools outside their own neighborhoods, the island schools are almost throwbacks to a previous age.

"These are the last true community schools around," Meyer says of Avalon School, which serves 400 elementary and high school students, and the recently opened Two Harbors Elementary School, which has 15 students.

Limited Housing, Jobs

Because housing and employment opportunities on the island are limited, school overcrowding has not been a problem. Unlike the mainland, where a mixture of students from various minority groups outnumber white students, the island schools are attended by only two major ethnic groups: Latinos, who constitute about a third of the students, and whites, who constitute the rest. And because the students all live nearby, Meyer says, Catalina parents tend to get more involved in their children's educations than do their mainland counterparts, with the result that island principals are expected to function more actively as members of the community.

At times that has been a problem.

Suzanne Fellenzer, Meyer's predecessor, was reassigned after only two years on the island, in part because some parents objected to her habit of commuting back to the mainland on weekends.

"She was an excellent principal," said Ed Eveland, the district's superintendent for secondary education. "But she had no husband or family there. She had a son on the mainland, she's a great UCLA fan and she never missed a game. I heard more than once from different people that she found it difficult to be a complete part of the island."

Fellenzer, now principal of Tincher Elementary School, agreed that her commuting habits may have caused concern among some parents. But she more than made up for her weekly absences, she said, by working long hours during the week. And the absences were necessary, she said, to stay in touch with her roots on the mainland and developments in the district.

Will Keep Long Beach Home

Meyer says he plans to give up attending UCLA games, although he will continue to maintain a residence in Long Beach for his college-age children and the family dog.

He was picked for the Avalon post above others with more administrative experience, Eveland said, because of his good character and leadership abilities, and because many of his interests--a love of sports, outdoors and the small-town life--fit in well on the island.

"It was kind of a natural marriage," said Eveland.

That seems to be the consensus on the island so far.

"He seems real mellow," said Mike Smith, 49, a math teacher at Avalon School for the last three years. "He's going to do well here."

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