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New Principal at Alvarado Throws Himself into the Job
By Heidi Anderson
At Alvarado Elementary on a Friday afternoon in early September, just two weeks into the school year, Principal David Weiner is shuttling between an ice cream social in the library and a ringing phone in his office.
The ice cream is for the staff, Weiner's way of thanking them for a tough couple weeks of school. The phone calls are, well, the kind of administrative questions you'd expect a principal to hear.
"Some nights I'm here until maybe nine o'clock taking care of things I don't get to during the day," says Weiner, with a grin that shows he doesn't really mind.
This week, Weiner has been burning the midnight oil to coordinate a San Francisco Symphony field trip, return calls to parents about teacher and class assignments, and of course handle the mountain of paperwork that arises in a public school with 23 classrooms, a staff of 70, and 470 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Plus, he's squeezed in a couple of visits to students' homes to discuss attendance problems.
"You never know what kinds of things can get in the way of a family getting a child to school on time every day," he says. "Sometimes it's just a matter of a parent's work schedule. So I'm here to help them figure out how we can help."
But Weiner's main mission is to create an exciting learning environment for both students and teachers. "I spend as little time in my office as possible during the school day because I want to be visiting the classrooms," Weiner says.
Before taking the helm at Alvarado, Weiner, 27, worked for two years as a literacy specialist and third-grade teacher at William R. De Avila Elementary in the Upper Haight. Before that, he taught kindergarten and first grade at an elementary school in Franklin, Mass. Born and raised in the Boston area, he earned his master's degree in education at Harvard University in June 2002.
This past year, Weiner received job offers from school districts in Boston, New York, and Oakland. But he accepted the position at Alvarado in San Francisco, "because it was the best opportunity," he says. "I really believe the San Francisco public schools are moving in the right direction. They're very focused on improving student performance, and Alvarado is a school that is functioning very well. Our faculty, students, and the Spanish-immersion program were all draws for me, as was the chance to work with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman."
Another selling point was Alvarado's Noe Valley location. Weiner has settled into an apartment on 24th Street near Vicksburg--within walking distance of the school's Douglass Street campus.
Despite his long days on the job, Weiner says he has eked out a few hours to enjoy the neighborhood. "I go to Martha and Brothers for coffee practically every morning, and I've been to Savor about a hundred times already," he says. "I love Chloe's for brunch on the weekends. I wish I had more time to explore the neighborhood -- there must be some great hidden places."
The Names Project
One of the things his Harvard education taught him was that the role of a school principal is vastly different from what it was a generation ago.
"It's come a long way from being mostly administrative," he says. "A principal should be in the classroom almost all the time to focus on the best ways to educate students."
Being in the classroom is also a good way to learn the names of all your students, which is a goal Weiner set for himself the first day of school. He's pleased with his progress so far.
"I know about 60 percent of the students' names. What's slowing me down and gets confusing are the twins and siblings. There are two brothers -- one in kindergarten and one in first grade -- and I keep getting them confused because they look identical," he laughs.
Asked to name the half-dozen or so students playing in the yard, he jumps up from his office chair, gazes out the window, and rapidly calls off the names.
That sort of enthusiasm must have been what attracted last year's search committee, composed of parents, staff, and teachers, to their most youthful candidate.
Striving for 95 Percent
Weiner was hired to replace Alvarado's former principal Phyllis Matsuno, who is on sabbatical for a year. (Matsuno will not be back at Alvarado next year; the school district doesn't let principals return to the same school after their sabbatical.)
The popular Matsuno was at Alvarado for six years and oversaw a rise in Noe Valley enrollment and gains in reading and math test scores.
"Things definitely were thriving when I got here. For example, 80 percent of our third-graders are performing above grade level in math," Weiner says, pointing to a printout on his desk of last spring's standardized test scores.
But Weiner hopes to raise the bar even further. "I won't be satisfied until at least 95 percent of our students in all grades are performing at or above grade level."
To that end, he is helping Alvarado's teachers collaborate more effectively and share their successful teaching strategies. "We have a reading recovery teacher [someone who specializes in teaching students who are reading below grade-level] working with beginning teachers on developing reading lessons. Also, since I've been a literacy specialist, I've taught in four or five classrooms too."
In addition, he is trying to teach kids how to think critically and look for meaning. "For instance, it used to be that a book report in elementary school was simply filling in the facts of a story. Now, we focus on not just why the character did something, but how it affected others, and we ask the students if they were ever feeling this way. We want to get to the whys and hows, for deeper understanding."
Given that he's overseeing a school with a popular Spanish-immersion program, in which students learn both English and Spanish as they learn and play together, Weiner, who doesn't speak Spanish, knows he's at a disadvantage.
"At this point, I can just about converse with the kindergarten students," he says. "But our PTA president is fluent in Spanish, and she has been a tremendous help to me at school functions."
Weiner also acknowledges that the immersion program, in which approximately half of Alvarado's students are enrolled, faces some challenges this year.
"An ideal immersion model is to have two-thirds of the students in the program be Spanish-speaking and one-third be English-speaking. We're at about 50-50, as our Latino enrollment has gone down a bit."
So, in order to better pitch the school to Spanish-speaking parents, he is attending a class in conversational Spanish for adults.
A Pop Quiz
The parent-teacher conferences, the student assemblies, the class preparation, the mounds of paperwork, all may seem like too much for one person to handle, but Weiner waves off the concerns, pauses a moment, then laughs. "I'm ridiculously organized. I realized in my first year of teaching, that if I didn't become organized, I'd be dead."
He points to his desk, with just a few papers on it and one open file. "This is as bad as I let my desk get."
But on this particular afternoon, something more fun than filing happens. Late in the day, fourth-graders Suzy Rojas and Orisa Fonseca, with several of their friends in tow, poke their heads in the door to thank him for letting the after-school kids in on the ice cream, too. Weiner invites them all in to chat. They swarm the office and cheerfully take stock of their new principal.
"Is this really your office?"
"Who's in this picture?"
"Why do you want to be a principal?"
"Are you married?"
"Where's your house?"
"Can we have a talent show this year?"
Weiner smiles as he answers their questions. Yes, this is really his office. He wants to be a principal because he likes teaching kids. He isn't married and he lives here in Noe Valley. As for the talent show, he defers to the teacher in charge of such things, and if she agrees, he'll be happy to discuss it.
Who's in the picture? He tells them those are the kids in the very first class he taught. He rattles off their names. The girls are impressed, demanding how he can remember all of them.
"Well, don't you remember people who are special to you?" he asks.
If you have questions about Alvarado School, located at 625 Douglass Street, you are welcome to give Principal David Weiner a call at 695-5695.