By Jackie Devereaux, Principal for a Day
It’s time to take a stand. It’s time to draw a line in the sand and decide which side you’re on. Are you for supporting education? Or are you for more budget cuts? It’s that simple. Either you want to cut our children’s chances of a better future or you want to ensure their chances. These sobering thoughts have racked my mind since Wednesday, Feb. 20 when I had the honor of serving as Principal for a Day at Desert Hot Springs High School. In reality, I simply shadowed Principal Anne Kalisek,who escorted me around the 1,800-student campus that operates more like a state-of-the-art college campus than an unjustly maligned school from a desert town on the other side of the tracks.
At 7:45 a.m. I met Kalisek in her already busy office. She gave me the option of sitting in on a new teacher interview or a Counseling Staff meeting. Without a second’s hesitation, I chose the Counseling meeting because back when I attended high school, it was a Counselor/Teacher who changed my life forever when he guided a troubled youth struggling in a dysfunctional family.
This is my recollection of what Mr. Gato said to me: “You’re not your parents, and you’re not your brothers and sisters. You are YOU. It’s up to you to make something out of your life. You can’t blame your family. You have to decide whether you want to succeed or fail. ” Those fateful words still echo in my brain and helped shape my path in life.
After fondly remembering my past, Kalisek escorted me to four Special Education classes where the most physically, emotionally and intellectually challenged youths are receiving a high school experience. These students mostly come from Angel View Crippled Children’s homes. I watched as one wheelchair-bound student thrashed her head erratically while a teacher gently stroked her arm and sang a song to soothe her frazzled mind. Tears welled in my eyes, and I had to collect myself in an adjacent room before moving on to the next level of challenged students. I observed and met more Special Ed teachers, all unsung heroes guiding these youths through an educational experience that wasn’t available back in the 1970s.
I met James Lister-Looker, a Life Skills teacher preparing his students to, hopefully, live an independent life and attain jobs suitable for handicapped people. I connected him with Joe Blasco, a makeup icon from Hollywood, who is expanding his company into the Coachella Valley and seeking handicapped employees to help fill his orders. It was heart-warming to think that maybe, just maybe I could help make a connection that landed a few students a job.
Kalisek sensed my heightened emotions and changed our path to show me classes in my field of expertise – Journalism. I first toured the state-of-the-art Digital Media and Video Production classes taught by Jamie O’Neil where students produced and edited short films and news stories for broadcast on their own TV station. They worked on Apple computers and equipment just like those found in modern TV stations. Then Teacher Greg Andrade gave me three high-glossy programs produced by his Photography students for the Drama students’ theater productions. These printed materials look as good as those produced by any public relations firm between Los Angeles and New York.
“God, I wish they had these classes when I was in school,” I said. Kalisek smiled, and then escorted me to the Public Safety Academy (PSA) where students impeccably dressed in navy blue cadet uniforms behaved like adults in the military. I asked students why they took this rigorous class and collectively they had this to say: “I want a career in law enforcement; I want to stay out of trouble and avoid peer pressure; I want to be a fireman; I want to be a lawyer; I want to be a nurse; I want to go into the military; I want to be a paramedic.” These fiercely disciplined students have toured the Banning Jail, the College of the Desert campus, they get Border Patrol sponsorship and receive eight weeks of Red Suit training – use of a baton, self defense, arrest and control techniques, close order formation and other law enforcement skills. Again, I was very impressed.
At the school parking lot, officers from the Desert Hot Springs Police Department and Cal Fire talked about their jobs and demonstrated the equipment on their fire trucks and patrol cars. It was inspiring to see so many young faces fully engaged in their conversations.
Then Kalisek escorted me to an Advanced Biology class preparing students for college level work. While Master Teacher Jessica Miller observed from the back of the class, Student Teacher Katherine Vargas instructed the class, and it was her very first day on the job. (No pressure with the press walking in taking photos). Then we visited an Economics class taught by Jeff Kabel where students were figuring out how many shoes would be manufactured using a complex formula. Again, Economics was taught in college not high school back in the 70s. Lastly, I observed the Apex Credit Recovery class taught by Jeff Burke where students worked independently on Apple computers to complete courses they dropped, failed or neglected to sign up for. Some students could “test or quiz out” of the required courses, while others worked at their own pace.
The day ended with a luncheon at the Palm Springs Unified School District’s Operation Center, (off Gene Autry across from the airport), where I and 21 other Principals for a Day recounted our experience. I wish I had prepared a speech praising Kalisek for her 23 years of dedicated service to the district and how she in three short years turned around a previously much-maligned school with an 80 percent Hispanic student population with only 120 employees, 40 of those being administrative or classified employees and only five counselors! I wish I had praised the unsung heroes of her teaching and counseling staff more, instead of talking about ending budget cuts to our schools.
But alas, our congress is about to slash educational funding again because of the Fiscal Cliff. I think it’s time to take a stand and say no more cuts to education. Instead, cut the pet pork belly projects lauded by the GOP and Democrats, alike, and reach a consensus about funding our schools. It’s time we as voters let our lawmakers know that we’re not going to take it anymore! The children of this nation deserve better, and I for one demand that they get it.