Noe Valley Voice September 2003

New Principal a Good Match for Fairmount

By Sue Cattoche

It's a sunny August morning at Fairmount Elementary School, the day before teachers and office staff will return to prepare for the new school year, but the phone is already ringing nonstop. The school's new principal, Karling Aguilera-Fort, fields calls from parents, effortlessly switching between Spanish and English as he answers questions about the three distinct programs hosted by Fairmount: a popular two-way Spanish-English immersion program, an all-English language development program, and an "inclusion" program for students with special educational needs.

Aguilera-Fort is uniquely qualified for this varied assignment. Within the San Francisco Unified School District, he taught bilingual special education classes at Sanchez Elementary School and was assistant principal at Buena Vista Elementary, a school where all students participate in a two-way Spanish-English program similar to Fairmount's.

Most recently, he was director of Garfield Charter Middle School in Redwood City. But it's already clear that Fairmount is where he really wants to be, and he is passionate about his commitment to all the school's programs. His mantra: "We are all working for all of the students at Fairmount."

A group of young students wandering through the school attracts his attention. Although they are speaking fluent English with each other, they are surprised when he introduces himself as their new principal--in Spanish. They answer him and continue the conversation in equally fluent Spanish. That's the goal of the two-way immersion program: equal proficiency and literacy in two languages by graduation at the end of grade five.

Beginning in kindergarten, immersion students receive 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English. Over the next few years, the proportion of instructional time using English increases, until all the students are reading, writing, and conversing in both languages fluently. With students coming to the program from both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families, language learning is reinforced through social interaction with peers who are fluent in the second language.

Fairmount parents also may choose to enroll their children in the English-only program, where students can be taught in English all day. Aguilera-Fort says the students in English-only classes will receive the same excellent curriculum and be encouraged to meet the same high educational objectives as students in bilingual classes.

Inclusion, the third program at Fairmount, maximizes opportunities for special needs students--children with disabilities--to participate in regular classrooms, sometimes with assistance from instructional aides.

"In my heart, I am a special education teacher," professes Aguilera-Fort. "I believe that all students have the potential and the right to learn. The Fairmount community shares this belief, and all the teachers embrace the inclusion program just like any other program. We are one community."

Residing only two blocks from the school, Aguilera-Fort has found time to get to know the neighborhood and is already a regular at Martha & Brothers coffee shop on Church Street--that is, when he is not putting in long hours at his job.

Fairmount's families appear to be pleased with their new principal. "The parents have been very welcoming since I came aboard," Aguilera-Fort smiles. "They have helped smooth the transition between principals and are also very supportive of the teachers. They really care about all the students."

Aguilera-Fort also emcees a monthly poetry event at a restaurant on Valencia Street where students from area schools recite poetry in Spanish and English. Invoking the spirit of Garcia Lorca, these evenings at El Valenciano "reinforce the love for poetry and literature in Spanish, emphasize the importance of bilingual education, and teach students that language is rich and valuable. You can be absolutely bilingual without losing anything, without losing the mother tongue."

A painter leans through the doorway asking for directions, and the phone rings yet again.

"I keep telling myself this will all slow down once school begins," says Aguilera-Fort. Then he laughs at the absurdity of the idea as he walks away, gesturing for the painter to follow. h

Fairmount Elementary School is located at 65 Chenery Street, a block south of 30th Street. The school, with an enrollment of 375 students, offers weekly tours, especially for parents of preschoolers who may wish to enter next fall. Call 695-5669 for dates and times.