November 2012

Downtown High School Principal Moves to John O’Connell

By Chelsi Moy, Special from Mission Local

In the decade that Margot Goldstein has been an 11th-grade United States history teacher at John O’Connell High School, she’s worked with five different principals, as well as countless deans and assistant principals. “We need consistency,” Goldstein said. “That’s what’s been missing.”

This academic year students may finally be getting just that. Former principal Martin Gomez returned to his hometown of Los Angeles for personal reasons after one year at John O’Connell. Mark Alvarado, a familiar face at the school, is now at the helm. Alvarado served as John O’Connell’s assistant principal six years ago. He’s now returned as principal, bringing promises of leadership longevity to the school. “I believe in John O’Connell,” said Alvarado. “I’m going to stay. I’m going to be here for a while.”

Alvarado lives in the Mission, and has worked at Mission High School and Buena Vista Elementary School. He’s served education in San Francisco for 15 years, primarily at underperforming schools. He left John O’Connell to become principal of Downtown High School, a Potrero Hill-based continuation school that serves students who’ve been unsuccessful in a traditional high school setting, and are on the verge of dropping out. “He’s really about serving the underserved population,” said Ellen Wong, Downtown’s new principal, who was assistant principal under Alvarado. “He has a big focus on workforce education, because not all of our students go on to college. I think he’s a big-picture person. He has a lot of ideas.”

Alvarado is known for creating clear policies and procedures at Downtown High School, Wong said. “In a business, it would be called an operations manual,” she said. “In education, instead of writing down processes, they’re passed on. After a while, people forget if they’re not written down.” Alvarado also championed efforts to bridge gaps for graduating students transitioning between high school and secondary education or vocational training programs.

“It’s not just about graduating students,” Wong said. “It’s about transitioning to the next step. You need to help students build that bridge.”

Alvarado has been described as a straightforward communicator and a no-nonsense principal. When he’s not in a meeting, the principal’s door is open. Teachers walk in and out freely. It’s been a couple of months, but so far Goldstein calls the new principal transparent, open and responsive to staff morale. “We need dialogue,” Goldstein said. “We need to have discussions with each other and with administrators. I feel as though we’re approaching some codification of things, but there’s always room for improvement.”

Goldstein is encouraged by the fact that Alvarado knows what he’s getting into. He’s familiar with the students who attend John O’Connell, who have historically scored below average on standardized tests, with 73 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch. One of the biggest challenge facing Alvarado is one that’s existed for years: the community’s perception of John O’Connell as a low-performing school with gang-related problems. “John O’Connell’s reputation is based on standardized test scores, not on what’s happening in the classroom and what students are actually learning,” Goldstein said. “John O’Connell is fighting the perception that test scores reflect the quality of the school.”

Alvarado couldn’t agree more. “John O’Connell has gotten an unfair rap from the community,” he said. It’s not the same school it was when he left, Alvarado said. “It’s still a high school, so we’ll have issues, but it’s calmed down significantly. Five years ago it was a different community.”

Alvarado wants to focus on John O’Connell’s many strengths. He praised the work in the classrooms by teachers and students. He pointed to the abundance of community support for the students. His goal is for the community to feel a sense of ownership in the high school. In return, he wants the high school to meet the community’s needs, especially in terms of vocational programs. John O’Connell is known for its career training programs, Alvarado said, giving high school students the opportunity for hands-on training in areas such as carpentry, culinary arts and pre-engineering in electronics technology, to name a few. It’s not what defines John O’Connell, but it is a unique characteristic, he said.

Alvarado wants to facilitate the conversation, but not own it. He wants teachers, students and parents to identify the school’s strengths and unique qualities and begin to change the perception of the high school within the greater community. “It can’t be me, Mark Alvarado, driving us forward,” he said. “It has to be a community conversation.”

But change takes time. With shrinking budgets and a staff that’s accustomed to a revolving door for principals, who each have their unique way of doing things, Alvarado is taking it slow. He calls it “status-quo mode.” He’s watching and observing, supporting what already exists. He’s learning how things operate. And he wants to highlight what’s working.

“We have so many assets and a plethora of strength in our community partners,” he said. “We should embrace who we are.”

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