Noe Valley Voice December-January 2001

Languages Are a Specialty for New Principal at Fairmount

By Heidi Anderson

Riza Gutierrez became the new principal at Fairmount Elementary School in September, replacing Linda Luevano, who held the position for six years. Luevano was promoted last June to associate superintendent for the San Francisco Unified School District. Fairmount, at 65 Chenery Street, enrolls about 350 students -- from Noe Valley, Glen Park, the Mission, and Bayview­Hunters Point.

Gutierrez is eager to say "hi" to everyone in her new community. It's all right, though, if you don't speak English. Gutierrez speaks fluent Spanish. She also can converse in German. And if she really needs to, she might greet you in Serbo-Croatian.

"I grew up in lots of places," Gutierrez explains. She lists Southern California, Colorado, Maryland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia. Her father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force.

"My first language was Croatian, but I don't remember it," she says. "My second was German, then English, then Spanish."

Gutierrez had picked up a little Spanish in high school when she participated in Amigos de las Americas and worked a few summers in Costa Rica and Ecuador. But she became more interested in college, where she met her future husband Carmelo, who spoke only Spanish. She went on to earn her teaching credential from the National Hispanic University in San Jose, Calif. She now lives in Pacifica with her husband and two children, Ricardo, 7, and Alejandro, 2.

That she loves languages, and has been exposed to several, helps her in her new role at Fairmount. Almost half of Fairmount's students are enrolled in a Spanish-immersion program.

Gutierrez also has experience teaching. She taught kindergarten for six years and first grade for one year in South San Francisco. All her classes were either Spanish or Spanish-English bilingual.

Still, Gutierrez, 35, is a rookie at running a public school in San Francisco. And she admits facing many challenges. "This is a huge transition. Fairmount not only lost its principal, but also its secretary of several years, and some staff. I have a totally open-door policy and must make myself available to everyone."

She also has to ensure that students improve their test scores under her supervision. Until recently, Fairmount was known for its meager scores and it had a general reputation as an underperforming school.

"Actually, the students' scores have gone up in small steps for the past three or four years," says Gutierrez. "They met their target goal last year." This earned Fairmount a $2,500 bonus, which is being put toward schoolwide cultural programs.

But as it is with all public schools in San Francisco, Fairmount must continue to show progress. So Gutierrez is planning a big push in academics.

"The kids will continue to work on their test-taking skills," she says. And teachers, too, will get a chance to sharpen their skills. "I've planned some professional development days for something called 'differentiated instruction,' where they'll learn more about teaching kids who have different learning styles."

She also is taking time to assess the two largest programs at Fairmount, the Spanish-Immersion Program and the English Language Development Program. About half of the students are enrolled in Spanish-Immersion.

But she promises not to fix things unless they're truly broken. "I don't want to come in here and change the world," she says. "My specific goals this year are to help teachers to be successful and to keep working to bring more parent volunteers into the school."

That means a lot of meeting and greeting, and a crash course in school bureaucracy. "I'm getting support from people all over the district to learn how to do some of this," Gutierrez says, gesturing toward a pile of papers on her desk. The school district also provides formal training in how to be a good principal.

"But training takes time, too," she says. "I find myself putting the kids to bed at night and tackling paperwork I couldn't finish during school hours.

"I love being with the students and everybody -- that part is easy," laughs Gutierrez. "But with all the challenges this year, I'd have to say paperwork is one of the biggest."