March 24, 2005
Principal for a Day, Lesson for a Lifetime
This Wednesday dawns as another tough, typical grind for the principal of the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES). There's the 7:15 a.m. arrival and the 10 p.m. departure. Then there's the picket line set up by half the teaching staff. And later, the little problem of not having eye washes in science classrooms in case experiments go dangerously wrong.
It's a lot more than Kenn Phillips could have bargained for when he accepted this gig as principal. Lucky for him, he doesn't have to come back tomorrow.
That's because Phillips isn't the real principal, but merely principal for a day. Phillips is among more than 200 professionals who arranged to shadow principals as part of a Los Angeles Unified School District effort to create alliances between businesses and schools. Phillips is getting an early start with his mid-March stint. Nearly all of the other short-timers are serving on Tuesday, March 29.
At the Center for Enriched Studies, the Principal-for-a-Day ritual has a distinctly Jewish cast. Phillips, a 46-year-old businessman, is Jewish, and so is the actual principal, 56-year-old Robert Weinberg. SOCES, as the school is called, has a sizable contingent of Jewish students, an estimated 20 percent. He considers character education, often expressed through religious traditions, to be at the core of developing responsible young adults. His sign-off after announcements wishes students a good day and reminds them "character counts."
SOCES, in Tarzana, is not a district trouble spot by any measure. Its test scores are among Los Angeles' best; its students almost universally attend college. But that doesn't make the principal's job easy, as Phillips learns.
Not that Weinberg is complaining. He's entirely immersed in his role.
"Most people, when they come to this school," Weinberg says, "find it's a magical kind of place."
OK, it's not so magical to find 35 teachers picketing, but they're not mad at the principal, only upset over several years without pay raises. And the cause of the 10 p.m. departure is a concert, a special event that Weinberg is pleased lose sleep for. As for the eye washes -- Weinberg can handle that, too. By day's end, he decides to spend grant money to buy them. He's got plenty of other potential uses for those funds, but safety, he concludes, has to come first.
Phillips' visit quickly becomes an exchange of ideas, a sharing of experiences. Phillips has shadowed a principal seven times: "It's important that I understand what Bob, the teachers and students are thinking, because when I meet with people at a very high level, they don't know the pulse of what's going on," said Phillips, a director at the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.
So, at 10:15 a.m., when Weinberg grabs his walkie-talkie and heads outside, Phillips, mobile phone strapped to his belt, follows. Phillips is dressed smartly, sleekly, in a business suit and gleaming blue tie. Weinberg, by contrast, is large -- 6-foot-8 -- and more rumpled. He's known for occasionally dressing up as "Bob the Builder."
Weinberg leans against a railing at the center of campus, while teachers and many of the school's 1,750 students stream by. SOCES is known for a student body that ranges in age from 10 to 18. Little girls, dressed in pink, snack on bagels, while a high school couple walks past with arms draped around one another. A teenage boy sitting on a bench plays guitar.
"What are we doing?" Phillips asks.
"We're doing supervision," Weinberg answers. "If kids want to talk to me, they have access."
"Hey, Mr. Weinberg," says a redheaded sprout. "Have a peanut M&M. I bought them, so you could have one."
The bell sounds and students dart in every direction. Weinberg stays in place, issuing tardy slips.
But he's not just giving a demonstration in school administration. He wants to hear Phillips' ideas on education. Businesses need students with better communication and teamwork skills, Phillips says, and with a stronger commitment to ethics. During part of the day, he will share these beliefs with a class of high schoolers.
Weinberg leads Phillips down a hallway, explaining that advanced students can take classes at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
"Have you thought about adding a bungalow here, so that instead of kids going to Pierce, you'd have [the instructors] come here?" Phillips asks.
"No, but that'd be great," Weinberg says.
As they walk through an outdoor cafeteria, Phillips asks, "Do you have an active PTA?"
Weinberg, in his fifth year here, says the school has no PTA at all, but he'd like to establish one.
"If you need help, I'll see if we can make that work for you," Phillips says.
He explains that a president of the association sits on his company's board.
The two step into an auditorium blaring with music, where orchestra students rehearse for the evening's concert. Weinberg points out how he renovated the place with contributions from corporate sponsors.
When it's time for the two to part, Weinberg lumbers through one door to "do supervision," while Phillips glides through a different one to return to his world of business.
Before he leaves, Phillips asked: "If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?"
Weinberg says he would reduce class sizes, add more time to the school year and get every teacher to believe that any student can learn.
If Phillips and his corporate associates could help accomplish those things, he'd be welcome to stand in as principal any day.