Museum Director Musings on Being Principal for a Day

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For years, the Bassett, Rowland, and Hacienda-La Puente school district, along with the La Puente Valley Regional Occupational Program and the San Gabriel Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce have sponsored “Principal for a Day,” in which local business people and other community members are given the opportunity to go to a school, tour classrooms, meet students and teachers, and learn about the great things these institutions do.

I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in this program before and did so again today at Los Altos Elementary School in Hacienda Heights, which I drive by frequently to and from the Homestead and which has been sending students to our “A Journey Through Time” program for thirty-five years.  I didn’t expect, however, to get a labeled preferred parking spot, a personal greeting from two students, and a banner welcoming me!  What a welcome!

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Mrs. Sinapi gave me an introduction to the school first, explaining that, for the last several years, Los Altos has been a dual immersion campus in Spanish and English.  What was particularly interesting to hear was that, because the service area around the school was not generating enough school-age children, there was talk of closing the campus.  Instead, the district implemented the dual immersion concept, which meant that most of the student body, which is about three-quarters Latino, comes from other areas within the Hacienda-La Puente district or from out-of-district transfers.  Mrs. Sinapi explained that the community benefited because there is a vibrant school in their neighborhood, rather than a shuttered campus.

We then walked through the classrooms, from kindergarten through fifth grade, and I met with teachers and students who work with varying levels of immersion in Spanish and English.  Mrs. Sinapi expressed surprise that her normally expressive and verbal students were largely subdued and shy, but what else could be expected when a new person walks in during instruction?!  It was nice, though, to hear some cheers when a fourth-grade class was introduced to me, because they’d just been on a “A Journey Through Time” program visit a couple of weeks ago.

It was also fascinating to see how dedicated teachers interacted with engaged students in their classwork, especially in Spanish for verbal instruction as well as with printed classroom materials. It was also highly interesting to hear about the emphasis Los Altos places on native aboriginal cultural traditions, including local Indians and native Indians of Mexico, and about how local history is tied into the program-this is a natural and obvious point of interest for us at the Homestead!  It was obvious this was a campus staff that was dedicated to enriching the 450 or so children who attend Los Altos and that was really great to see.

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The tour also included a visit to the school garden, which is part of a program sponsored by Kaiser Permanente on healthy eating and living.  Students were out in the garden getting instruction as we dropped by and it was great to see the vegetables, fruits and other items being grown there.

The two-and-a-half hours flew by and then it was time to head back to the office to wrap up.  A teacher approached Mrs. Sinapi with an issue and, while were in the office, the teacher turned to me and asked if I remembered her.  It turned out that Debbie Marko was a volunteer way back in 1989 or so, not long after I started working at the Homestead.  She and our Director of Public Programs, Alexandra Rasic, were students at Wilson High School when they joined our volunteer program together.  While Alexandra stayed on to join our staff in the mid-90s, Debbie went into teaching in the district she attended.  It was certainly a surprise to see her after so long!

Then, it was off to the Industry Hills Expo Center for an event that included lunch; musical entertainment by the excellent Nogales High School Choir; the awarding of scholarships to fourteen students from local high schools, adult schools, and the ROP program; and a featured speaker, Emily Williams, who used history to discuss dynamic future change, noting that the revolutions that will transform the 21st century have not been experienced yet despite all of the dramatic change underway now.

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The “Principal for a Day” program is a great one and I was honored to be part of it again.  The program committee, sponsors, schools, principals, administrative and teaching staff, and students are to be congratulated for showing those of us who visited just how dynamic and vibrant our local schools out.

As a museum that places a premium on reaching out to schools, teachers, and students and their families, the Homestead continues to work at improving and enhancing our engagement with educational institutions.  I look forward to future involvement in the “Principal for a Day” program as a natural fit for the museum in collaborating with our local schools.

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