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The Politician Principal : In achieving difficult institutional change, a middle school administrator adhered to one overriding goal: The students' needs come first. : GUADALUPE SIMPSON

January 23, 1994|MARY HELEN BERG | Guadalupe Simpson, 49, has instituted sweeping changes at Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park since she became principal in 1986. The 3,600-student school, 98% Latino and 55% limited-English speaking, has replaced about two-thirds of its teaching staff and expanded its counseling staff, and three years ago was awarded a $280,000 computer grant from IBM. Simpson was interviewed by Mary Helen Berg

When I first came here I just wanted the kids to have an education equal to middle-class or upper-middle-class kids. I just wanted us (teachers) to believe that the kids here could make it and that they wanted to make it, (but that) it was just more difficult. That's really a big vision.

Then I re-evaluated, and now I take littler steps. My approach has changed dramatically. I didn't really analyze the way things worked or considered (the school's) very political structure.

I wanted to have open discussion with teachers and talk about instructional change. I was shocked that people didn't want that. There was a power structure in place. I thought, "What's going on here?"

I've changed in what I look for in teachers. At first I used to look for someone who was organized and did a lesson plan and had some work ethic. But that wasn't enough. I mean, why is it that you're organized and have a pretty classroom but the kids still aren't going anywhere?

Now I look for someone who has these skills but who is willing to learn new ideas and techniques and someone who believes the kids can learn. We focus our job interviews now more on a belief system than on your knowledge of English or math. We focus on your commitment and whether you understand how difficult it is to work with kids in a poor urban area and how demanding their needs are. That's most important.

I started working with the teachers where they had strengths. At this school, many teachers had an interest in technology. We became part of the California Model Technology project, where the state gives money to school districts to promote technology in creative ways, and I started working with small groups of teachers who wanted me to be instrumental in helping them change and improve the instructional program.

We also have an IBM building. Two-thirds of it is funded by IBM with a $280,000 grant to improve writing. All 15 teachers who work in that building have been trained by Cal State Dominguez's department of education through the California Literature Project to use computers in their teaching to enhance writing.

Kids are really motivated by technology. I watched kids waiting at 7 a.m. to get in to use a computer. It's a modern-day gimmick, a new way of learning. The computer entertains in a way and it's very non-threatening. No one is marking your paper, and when the kids sit at a computer they can write more. Maybe because no one is watching them. Teachers can go into any child's work and look at it and correct it.

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Now, in order to have a strong instructional program, you have to have a strong discipline program. If you don't have the discipline, then kids can't learn. But discipline has to be fair. Strong discipline doesn't mean (to) just punish kids.

At this school with such large numbers, some kids were being referred for discipline over and over. So I decided we needed more and better counseling so kids could learn how to take charge of their behavior and function in a society.

Slowly I got one extra counselor, then another. The parents bought into the idea and newer teachers bought into it. Now we have 10 counselors. For a school this size it's not enough, but it's a start.

I truly believe that if you tell kids, "You are really wonderful; you are the best class in the school," the kids will believe it and they will produce.

Last year I had a lot of teachers tell me, "Mrs. Simpson, this class of sixth-graders is the best class I've ever had." Finally one teacher figured it out. He said, "This is the class (that will graduate in) 2000, and they've been told since kindergarten they were wonderful and they were going to make a difference--and they've been telling them and telling them. That's why they're wonderful."

There are some administrators who can get things done because they're politicians. I don't like to be a politician. I like to be a person who is an advocate for children. But to be really, really effective, to get things done, you have to be a politician and an advocate for children.

I never forget that I'm trying to do it for children. If I'm going to do it for my ego or because I want to make some teachers happy, that's not the way to do it. You have to truly analyze and study how it's going to better the children and how it's going to better their future, and then you can fight for it. And I don't let anybody get in my way.

When we applied for the IBM grant we were told that the district was not going to allow schools to apply for it individually. We already had a science grant with IBM, and IBM wanted us to apply for this grant for English.

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