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IN THE CLASSROOM

Career Switch Puts Navy Pilot in Principal's Office

New administrator hopes to improve test scores and lure private school students back.

September 24, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Three weeks into his first job as principal of an elementary school, Stephen Edmunds has become an expert in the little things that make a campus run.

On a recent day at San Rafael Elementary in Pasadena, Edmunds had to find out why bells weren't going off (a student had pulled the fire alarm the day before, turning them off), ensure that buses arrived on time (phone calls were made and e-mails sent) and admonish a student for stealing thermometers from the nurse's office.

But he's also begun to work on big-picture ideas to raise the school's academic levels, mainly by getting teachers to collaborate and share the teaching strategies that work best.

Silver-haired and meticulously dressed in a white shirt, tie and dress pants, Edmunds looks as if he might be more at home in a boardroom than in a classroom. And in part, that may be an accurate observation.

Edmunds, 50, was a Navy fighter pilot who flew P-3s in Cold War surveillance operations, and a military strategic planner who helped rewrite plans for a potential war with North Korea. He has also worked as a corporate executive, running marketing programs for such companies as Procter and Gamble and Pillsbury.

Seven years ago, he reinvented himself as an elementary-school teacher. Now, he's starting another new career, this time as a school administrator.

San Rafael, a kindergarten-through-sixth grade campus with about 375 students and 22 teachers, poses academic and demographic challenges. Test scores have steadily improved in recent years, but are not yet where the district would like them to be. Seventy percent of the students at San Rafael are on free or reduced price lunches because of low family income.

Edmunds, who lives in Seal Beach, has found himself straddling two sides of Pasadena society. He is knocking on doors in the city's poorest housing projects, from which many of his students -- 97% Latino and African American -- are bused to school. He also is meeting families in the leafy, upper-income -- and mainly white -- west Pasadena neighborhood where the school is located.

In part, he's trying to follow the mandate established two years ago by Pasadena Unified Supt. Percy Clark, to bring back to the district the thousands of students who have fled to local private schools.

Edmunds said he wants to drive up demand for San Rafael --by continuing to increase test scores and convincing locals that it is a school worth attending.

What he has found, he said, "is that the skill sets used looking for submarines, or trying to get people to buy toilet paper, are the same skill sets I'm using here."

That was an attractive premise for Clark, who hired Edmunds for the $71,500-a-year principal's position. "What he is starting to do at San Rafael is exciting," Clark said. "We are strongly supportive of getting that neighborhood connected with the school."

Typically, principals rise through a school's teaching ranks before becoming the heads of their own schools. In other cases, they are recruited through efforts underway across the country to bring high-powered executives into administration and to move mid-career professionals into teaching.

But Edmunds did not enter education through a formal program. The son of two teachers, who is married to a special education teacher and is the father of two sons -- one in a public high school and the other in college -- he said he went into teaching in part because he thought "the product needed work. I was at a point financially when I could put my money and time where my mouth was."

With a degree in business and an MBA already under his belt, Edmunds went to Cal State Long Beach to get a teaching credential. He graduated in 1995 and began teaching elementary school -- mostly second grade -- in the Cypress School District in Orange County. Last year, when Pasadena began seeking new principals, he applied.

Edmunds' office is a hub of activity that bears witness to each part of his life. Naval commendations hang on the wall. Brightly colored toy boxes occupy a shelf. A human-sized stuffed panda, wearing a San Rafael T-shirt, sits nearby. When Edmunds arrived, the panda was so grimy, he said, he had to send it out to be dry-cleaned. Now, almost every visitor to the office -- students, parents, teachers -- is asked to pose for a picture with the panda. The best photos are posted on a bulletin board.

Edmunds functions as an overseer, guiding teachers' agendas and managing the school's finances. But he's also becoming a details man.

Each day, he checks attendance, an important topic at San Rafael. Because some students are enrolling late, the school's numbers fluctuate daily. Edmunds worries that if classes aren't full, he might lose a teacher or two during the school year, a scenario he wants to avoid.

Many teachers said it was too soon to say how Edmunds' brand of CEO-principal will change the school. But they've noticed, they said, that he can be a disciplinarian and still maintain a friendly manner with the youngsters.

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