In many ways, the least advantaged of the 480 students at John O’Connell High School remind their new 34-year-old principal of himself.
“I grew up in Los Angeles … I lived in apartments and bounced around with my family, so I can relate to the students that are not as advantaged as their other student peers,” said Martin Gomez, the son of Mexican immigrants. “The students here are similar to the ones I grew up with.”
That’s a help, he said. So too is his doctorate in education, his master’s in administration, his six years teaching math and his six years as a vice principal.
But to turn John O’Connell from one of the city’s 10 struggling schools into one of its better educational experiences, Gomez knows that he needs for the students to care — about themselves, the school and yes, even their test scores.
To get them there, he’s going to try everything from smencils to workshops in wood shop, engineering, architecture and pipe fitting. Smencils? Ah, got your attention — but we’ll come back to that later.
First, the money: For once, it’s not an issue.
O’Connell is one of 10 San Francisco public schools on a statewide list of struggling schools to get part of a $45 million federal School Improvement Grant. Its share: $1.6 million a year, which began last year and will continue for two more years as long as test scores improve.
How struggling is O’Connell? Only 7.9 percent of the students scored proficient or better in mathematics last spring, and 28 percent in English-language arts.
“It’s not that we don’t have good teaching, it’s just that students aren’t aware of how important these exams are,” said Gomez, referring to the annual California standardized tests.
Parents who went to Mission schools agree. “I was organizing around clean bathrooms,” said Tracy Brown, a community school coordinator, recalling her experience at Mission High School, where her grades were high and she was a leader. She wishes now that someone would have pointed out the importance of test scores.
Only later did she learn that test results offered a measure of her progress compared to other students in San Francisco, who she would have to compete with to get into college.
Gomez agrees, and he’s already raising awareness of the tests by posting countdowns to important test dates on the new electronic bulletin board outside of the school, installed last Monday, and by greeting students at the door every morning and before they go home.
Students may roll their eyes when he asks how many days are left to the California High School Exit Exam, but he also engages, giving them high-fives and fist bumps as they walk through the double doors on Folsom Street.
One of his most immediate challenges, Gomez says, is student apathy.
Outsiders sometimes dismiss O’Connell, and sometimes students do, too.
“They’re not proud to be at O’Connell or to be in the Mission,” said Gomez, adding that he hopes plans for student-designed T-shirts will help build community.
To make it clear that his expectations are high — and that he and his staff are also learning — they met students on the first day of school dressed in caps and gowns.
To meet those expectations, he’s got additional help.
There are currently 49 teachers on staff for the new school year, 41 of which were added in the last year — that’s eight more than last year’s total. And another three instructional coaches are working with teachers to improve instruction, especially in writing.
Last year Richard Duber, the former principal, instituted block schedules two days a week to give students longer periods in important subjects. Gomez extended those classes to four days a week.
Gomez has also added a new counselor for incoming freshmen. Now O’Connell has three counselors, nearly one per grade.
To ensure focus and lessen the frenzy and pressure of being a teenager, Gomez has allotted 18 minutes a day at the end of the first and last periods for meditation.
“The whole point of this is wellness, because some underprivileged students don’t get any quiet time, and this is a time to have where they forget about their stresses and issues,” said Gomez.
Soon, too, a new Tech21 building will offer workshops in wood shop, engineering, architecture and pipe fitting. Hands-on labor skills will be stressed.
“My goal is to ensure that all students are prepared for life after high school,” he said.
To prepare students for college, Gomez plans to offer online advanced placement courses and a bridge program with San Francisco City College. While the latter is still in development, Gomez is already running a pilot program. Five students are taking an online AP calculus course guided by an on-site professor.
All of these improvements should help students on testing day. Smencils, too.
Studies, Gomez said, show that cinnamon helps the brain to stay alert, so come testing day, students will be issued cinnamon-scented pencils — smencils.
Yes, he said, it’s all very experimental, but worth a try.
And if they fail to raise test scores?
“Worst-case scenario, the students know that we care about them. And they’ll have a John O’Connell pencil.”