This spring, I was asked by the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) School Board president, Valerie Amezcua, to be “Principal for a Day.” This is an experience where local business leaders and other community members are invited to visit a school, tour classrooms, meet students and teachers, and learn about the great things being done in education.
I arrived at Jackson Elementary with a smile on the morning of March 22. It was already a special day because I was visiting one of the very same schools I’d attended as a child! I was greeted by the office team, Ms. Maria Benoun and Ms. Graciela Rodriguez, and immediately made to feel important. I had reserved parking, a main seat in the principal’s office, and was assigned to greet school families.
Principal Cervantes reporting for duty!
A Chance Encounter
When I met the principal I’d be shadowing for the day, I was shocked! There I stood, face-to-face with a familiar Mr. Norris Perez. You see, my first job after graduating high school was as a paraprofessional within SAUSD, and I was tasked to support a new teacher: Mr. Perez. Twenty years later, I was spending my day with him in his first year as principal at Jackson Elementary. We were both a little surprised!
I still can’t believe that I got to shadow Principal Perez for the day! What are the odds?
One of the first things we did was participate in a twenty-minute staff meeting. The faculty does this on a daily basis to prep for the day ahead. I was impressed by how productive it was and how staff made sure to stick to twenty minutes. Immediately after, I attended their Friday school-wide assembly.
I was honored to be able to give a brief speech. When I said who my boss was, all the kids went wild! They immediately asked, “Is JiJi a boy or a girl?” Students started coming up to me, proudly sharing their ST Math® progress and asking for my support if they were stuck on a challenging puzzle.
“Is JiJi really your boss?” a little girl asked.
“Well, yes,” I responded.
“So does JiJi only talk to adults in real life?” she asked. “Because JiJi doesn’t talk in the games and JiJi needs to talk to you in order to tell you what to do at work.” Kids are so smart and observant!
An Emphasis on Academic Success
I then toured the classrooms, from transitional kindergarten through fifth grade, and met with teachers and students. During my tour, I quickly noticed a strong presence of colleges represented by shirts, banners and signs in classrooms. It turns out, each class represented a college campus. I also learned that students refer to themselves as scholars. It was apparent that the Jackson Elementary community strongly values academics.
Look at these scholars’ University of Washington pride! I wonder if this will motivate many of them to apply there?
Jackson Elementary has been an ST Math school since 2008 through the Orange County Math Initiative and the JiJi culture there is strong. One of the classes I walked into had just finished working on dioramas and a few students had decided to create penguin habitats. I also heard stories about scholars spending their lunch or after-school time playing ST Math because they really wanted to get to 100% progress. In every class I visited, there were at least three students who had already achieved this goal!
Looks like JiJi has inspired all kinds of penguin-themed projects at this school.
A Well-Rounded Student Body
My tour then included a visit to the school’s $100,000 fitness center that they received as the grand prize winner of the 2010 Governor's Fitness Challenge, and to their mini-pitch soccer field, courtesy of LA Galaxy. Both of these gifts are part of a state-wide initiative for healthy eating and living. The school utilizes exercise as a reward for students, and it’s having an especially positive impact on those with attendance issues. The exciting fitness opportunities encourage scholars to come to school more often and stay engaged.
This mini-pitch soccer field blew me away! My son would love it.
The highlight of my day was meeting Ms. Juarez’s class. As soon as I entered her classroom, I felt an uplifting energy. The room didn’t look like a traditional classroom. Ms. Juarez had flexible seating including bean bag chairs, balance balls, and carpet space. At the time of my visit, she was teaching students how to become fundraisers for a meaningful cause. This was the second year they were collecting change for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Last year, they collected almost $3,000 in change and they were expecting to surpass that goal this year. Isn’t that impressive?
An Outstanding Day
My morning as principal flew by. At noon, I headed to a luncheon where I joined the rest of the schools that participated in this amazing day. McFadden Middle School hosted a nice Italian lunch for everyone and we had great entertainment from the local high schools.
Seeing friends in the community at the luncheon was the perfect way to end a fantastic day.
As the Community Partnerships Director at MIND Research Institute, I’m grateful for the opportunities our leadership provides to get involved with our partner schools. It’s just one of the things that’s kept me at this organization for over 17 years. MIND offers paid volunteer time (5% of working hours) to all colleagues through our Open MINDs program. Youth and women’s empowerment are causes close to my heart, and I was glad to be able to use Open MINDs hours to spend the day with students and their families. There are amazing things happening at our local schools!
After my visit, Principal Perez sent a wonderful message to my colleagues and I at MIND:
"What a wonderful experience it was having Mrs. Cervantes from MIND Research Institute serve as Principal for a Day at Jackson Elementary School. She connected with students right away, asking questions about their projects and how they use ST Math to learn math. We were thrilled to share about Jackson's Soccer Academy and ask her advice about how to grow the program over the next few years. She was thrilled with the strong focus on creating a pathway for students to earn college scholarships while leveraging the love our scholars have for soccer. We are grateful for MIND's many years of support here in SAUSD and are looking forward to many more years of success, innovation, and dynamic team work."
Thank you, Jackson Elementary, for providing me with this opportunity to give back and to learn about the strengths, challenges, and successes of your school. It was a privilege meeting your scholars and seeing that our future is in really great hands.
About the Author
Maria Cervantes is the Community Partnerships Director at MIND Research Institute. Find her on Twitter @magucervantes1.