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Making the Grade : Seventh-Graders Help Grill Adult Applicants for School Jobs


NORWALK — For a traditional educator, the job interviews in Norwalk were like some illogical nightmare where the established order is overturned--where the principal and teachers are grilled by a 12-year-old student instead of the other way around.

"I get to make adults nervous," said seventh-grader George Torres. "They looked pretty nervous. It was fun."

Torres is not a child dictator in some schoolyard "Lord of the Flies" scenario, but part of an ongoing effort by the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District to assemble staffs for six new schools serving grades six through eight.

These middle schools, which will open next fall, will allow the district to revamp a system that currently leaves seventh-graders in elementary school and puts eighth-graders in high school.

The district must hire a staff of more than 200 for the new schools, including counselors, teachers and principals. Most of the hiring decisions are being entrusted to committees of parents, custodians, secretaries, teachers and seventh-graders.

School staffs selected by the people they serve should be better than those chosen by district officials alone, Assistant Supt. Ginger Shattuck said. And students and parents are likely to be more excited about such a school, she said.

Traditionally, the superintendent of a school system hires the principals. And the principals usually decide what new employees will work at a school. But as seventh-grader George points out: "We're part of the school too. And we should have the right to give our opinion."

The school district selected a seventh-grader for each middle school's committee. George is on the committee for Hutchinson Middle School, which he will attend next year. Other groups, such as the teachers union and parent organizations chose their own representatives.

Applicants for principals' jobs, such as Edna Tobias, typically interviewed with several of the middle school committees. In each case, Tobias had to sell her skills to people who did not bandy about hip acronyms such as LEP (Limited English Proficient) and PQR (Program Quality Review).

"I tried to avoid acronyms," Tobias said.

Tobias, currently a principal in the San Ysidro Elementary School District, made the grade. She will become the principal of Lampton Middle School in Norwalk on July 1.

"She is really nice," 12-year-old Erica Soto said of Tobias. "She had great answers to the questions we gave her. In her answers, she talked about working together and school safety . . . and she's very credentialed."

Erica, who plays the clarinet and enjoys sports, had an equal vote on the eight-member committee charged with hiring Lampton's principal. Four teachers, two parents and a district custodian also sat on the committee. They narrowed a field of about 20 candidates to two choices. Supt. Robert Aguilar recommended one of two finalists to the school board, which ratified the selection.

For Hargitt Middle School, the board selected Phyllis Pringle, who earned high marks from 13-year-old Carmen Romero.

Carmen wanted to know how Pringle would help students make the adjustment from elementary to middle school.

Pringle suggested the immediate selection of school colors and a mascot, and holding "town meetings" for students and parents. The principal credits Carmen with the idea of keeping current seventh-grade student body officers in place for the first part of their eighth-grade year in the new school to help ease the transition.

Carmen also wanted to know what sports teams the principal would organize and if Hargitt could have vending machines and a telephone for students.

Pringle said she will look into those matters. "The things students are interested in are things we ought to be considering," said Pringle, who is currently principal at Moffitt Elementary in Norwalk. "Students are not asking to be allowed to come to school to do whatever they want. They want to come to school to learn."

The presence of parents also made the interviews a different experience for job seekers such as Tobias and Pringle.

"They zero in on what's important to them," Pringle said. "Do the 'experts' really know better about what's best for a school?"

Applicants said parents such as Ruth Kolb asked more questions about school security, school discipline and bilingual education than professional educators would have.

"I am a parent with children in the district," Kolb said. "That's what makes me qualified. I raised concerns about the principal and teachers being accessible to the parents."

To serve, Kolb and the other committee members were required to have several days of training. District officials told them what to look for in applicants and what kinds of questions to ask. The district's personnel office screened job seekers to make sure they had the proper credentials.

The committees took over last month.

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