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With School's Start Near, New Principals Are as Jittery as the Kids

August 24, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Jerry Vlasic can truly empathize with his wide-eyed 5-year-old son, who is more than a little nervous about starting school this week.

That's because Dad is a new face at his own school -- Las Flores Elementary -- and is wondering, just like his boy, if the kids will like him, where the bathrooms are and if the teachers are nice.

Among all the new arrivals at the Rancho Santa Margarita school in south Orange County, Vlasic is the most prominent. He's the new principal.

And if you think the kids are nervous, consider what's going through Vlasic's mind: Getting up to speed on test scores and teacher contracts. Finding out when the PTA meets. And writing an introductory back-to-school memo to parents.

Vlasic, 37, is one of hundreds of principals showing up for new assignments around the state this month -- about two dozen in Orange County. Though Vlasic was previously a principal in San Marcos in San Diego County, he and other principals with a new assignment are not immune to back-to-school jitters, because they know all eyes will be on them.

"But the unknown is exciting, too," Vlasic said. When school starts Wednesday, the building will be filled with 700 students and 45 teachers and staff members.

Touring the classrooms, Vlasic was pleased by what he saw: well-organized blue plastic tubs of books, eye-popping visual aids stuck to the walls and knee-high desks and chairs arranged in groups of four -- all things he said are conducive to learning.

"The right kinds of things are going to happen in here," Vlasic said while inspecting first-grade teacher Tami Boelman's room. "That's really comforting if you're new [like me]."

Vlasic is mulling where to put new portables and remembering to bring in some oversized maps to post in his office to stimulate conversation with curious kids. And he's trying hard to share his enthusiasm with teachers and parents, popping out of his office to introduce himself and chat.

Principals face different challenges, depending on their campuses. Administrators at new campuses, such as Jim Sieger at San Clemente's Vista Del Mar, a combined elementary and middle school, will help create their first traditions. Sieger has organized an e-mail election to choose the school mascot, with choices such as Garibaldi and Terrapins.

At existing schools, though, new principals face the diplomatic challenge of trying to implement new ideas without trampling traditions.

"Go slow," urged Paul Young, who just stepped down as president of the National Assn. for Elementary School Principals. "You have to be sensitive enough to understand that treading lightly is what wins people over.

"Never say anything bad about the person who was there before you," he warned. "That's just a good leadership practice, period."

Carol Erbe, the new principal at Cypress' Damron Elementary, said she has some big shoes to fill in replacing beloved retired leader Betty Brewer, who was principal there for six years and credited with boosting students' academic achievement.

"I'm nervous, but I know I can do this job," Erbe said with quiet conviction while walking through the campus on her first official day at the helm. "It's just going to be really different." She paused. "And fun."

She too has had a checklist of new-principal tasks. She's been wandering around campus to learn the names of everyone she encounters, including custodians, teachers, and little Jose Franco, whose mother was registering him for kindergarten.

Sitting in her office, which she has made homey by posting artwork of fish and a hermit crab drawn by her daughter, Erbe is reading files, memos, anything she can get her hands on to learn how things work at her new school. She's also been talking to teachers to learn why things have been done a particular way.

"It's about learning the climate of the school," she said, "finding out what's really important to people and what's working. I don't want to walk in and do things my way when things are already running really smoothly."

She had a few nagging tasks to take care of the first few weeks, including how to deal with an unpaved parking lot and child drop-off area. It won't be completed until October, and Erbe knows that means twice-a-day chaos.

Smaller tasks were just as important to Erbe's peace of mind. Figuring out that the computer wasn't broken -- it just needed both the monitor and CPU to be turned on -- was a good thing. So was learning to manipulate the fancy new telephone. Introducing herself to kindergarten teacher Maureen Welborn, Erbe apologized for wanting to sit down.

"Sit while you can," Welborn said knowingly. "You aren't going to get much of a chance to later. It's the stress of the learning curve."

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