The Man with the Plan: Questions for Mel Collins

The Man with the Plan: Questions for Mel Collins

Saturday, June 16, 2007 | In person, Mel Collins is a ball of energy. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts one recent morning, with a gold ring in his left ear and a thick gold chain around his neck, he does not look the part of an executive principal at San Diego Unified School District’s newest high school.

Yet, when Collins describes his plans for the new Lincoln High School in Lincoln Park, he is all business. When Lincoln opens in the fall, it will be San Diego’s Unified’s latest iteration of the small school, a new model for public high schools the district has begun to experiment with in recent years. It will be the first district school built specifically around the small-school model — the campus will eventually house five separate high schools geographically distinct with some shared campuswide facilities. Collins is also another district first — the position of executive principal was created to provide a single administrator to oversee all of the schools on the campus.

The idea behind small schools is a simple one: By taking traditional comprehensive high schools, with thousands of students, and breaking it up into smaller self-contained parts, the district hopes to give students a more personal experience that will keep them engaged and performing. San Diego High School, which used to be a large center-city school, for example, is now six separate schools sharing a single “educational complex.”

Lincoln was promised to be the “crown jewel” of Proposition MM, a $1.51 bond measure voters passed in 1998, and Collins said he it will be his job to make sure that is. How confident is he that he will carry out the community’s vision for the school? “Damn” sure, he says.

In a recent interview, Collins described his vision for the new campus, how the small-school model has affected education in San Diego and his perspectives on Superintendent Carl Cohn. Both men came to San Diego from the Long Beach Unified School District.

What exactly is an executive principal, and how is it different from a non-executive kind?

That’s a good question. Well, it kind of goes back to the concept of small schools and when they first came about in San Diego City Schools maybe about three years ago at San Diego High School, Kearny High School and Crawford. They were comprehensive schools and they were broken up into 14 small schools. Six on one campus, four on another, and four on another one.

And so, at the time, they said, “Joe, Sam, Pete, You, Mary and Steve, go and form your own high schools. Don’t talk to each other because you are independent of everybody else.” And that’s what they did, and they experienced some challenges. They probably experienced a lot of challenges. But they also had many successes. With the reopening of Lincoln High School and the heritage and the culture that had been created, it is something to consider.

And there was a Lincoln-Gompers redevelopment agency that met for a three-to-four-year period of time. One of the things that came out of that group is what they wanted to see (something similar) at Lincoln High School, because of its cultural traditions and background and the sports history, and on and on, so (Superintendent) Dr. (Carl) Cohn seeing this, and understanding too that a lot of people call it the crown jewel of Proposition MM, the crown jewel of San Diego City Schools and San Diego Unified in southeast San Diego, and on and on, so I guess they had started out with the same concept as the other three. But Carl, having been the longest sitting urban superintendent for 10 years in Long Beach, saw it differently. He recognized the fact that Lincoln High School was to San Diego as Long Beach [Polytechnic High School] is to Long Beach.

Is that where you were principal?

I was a principal there, and I was a counselor there, and I was an administrator or a vice principal and an assistant principal. So he said, after talking to H.J. Green, who is the director of small schools here, that there is one person that we know who is capable of coming down and putting this together. “Give Mel a call.”

So the new Lincoln is multiple small schools, and you oversee on top of that?

Yeah, I guess you would say that I’m there to help put it together with the principals and the assistant principals, the staff, to implement what the community and the Lincoln-Gompers redevelopment group wanted. And to make sure that people are adjusting to the challenges of the other small schools’ experience, that we learn from that. We’re going about that just a little bit differently.

It’s a created job.

So, in a sense, it’s kind of a new model for operating a small school?

Yes.

You just mentioned that you came from Long Beach. Why did you decide to do it?

I have the utmost respect and support for Carl Cohn and what his vision is and was in Long Beach and what it is here and some of the people he brought in for specific purposes or reasons. And I’m a site guy, I’m not a downtown type. I know how to organize a school, but only with the help of many, many others. I certainly couldn’t do it, and I’m not intending to do it, alone. I was going to retire, and I got a call, and it’s like, “Come down, take a look at this.” And as soon as you come down and talk, and you walk on that campus, it’s like, hey man, you work in education for 38 years, and you get to the Super Bowl. This is my Super Bowl.

What do you have to offer that’s different from what the local people have to offer?

Well, you know, it’s interesting. I think if you — well, what I have to offer is 38 years of experience. And that experience came about through teaching, being a site councilor, being a downtown consultant, being an assistant principal, principal of a middle school, principal of three comprehensive high schools that averaged 4,500 students at each of those. And working in the third largest school system in California, and having somewhat of a reputation of being very passionate, persistent, but at the same time developing some patience as to what schools had to look like.

I think I recognize and bring to the table a compassion for parents and community in terms of engagement and customer service, of servicing all kids, not just the very bright or middle of the road, but special education students, [English learners], all students. I firmly believe that all children can learn. I know a lot of people say that, but there are fewer of us who actually believe that. And I go about putting a school together and/or administering a school with that same notion.

How will the new school be different from the previous schools here?

Well, it was designed with the concept of small schools on the campus, which sits on 24 acres. It’s divided into four separate quadrants, which will each house a small school. There is a central administration and other facilities that will be shared, athletics, library, media, performing arts, theater arts, visual arts. So, it’s physically set up to accommodate four, and also a fifth school, which will be developed for 2008-09. I think that’s one of the big differences. And also, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s already been developed here in San Diego. We took a look at what’s already been done, small schools that exist, we took and stole and it was given to us, many of the concepts and the ways to go about doing things. People were very helpful. The administration, staff, kids and parents at those schools gave us a lot of information.

So that kind of formulated in our mind a plan along with the community input as to what we have as a vision.

Is the idea of small schools unique to San Diego?

No, no, no, it’s across the nation. Different school districts, different schools go about implementing it in a different way. It’s very basic. From sitting here, talking to you one-on-one, you are totally engaged. If 10 more people come, well, that’s 10 more people I have to now engage. So we have less for you and less for each of them. So when you have 600 kids, 450, 500 kids, the engagements, the relationships and the forum will hopefully keep Vladimir coming back to school on a continuing basis, and that’s what we want to happen.

Because Vladimir walks onto my campus and he’s like, totally in awe of it. But if somebody doesn’t engage him and say, “Hey man, we’re not going to let you fall through the cracks. We’re going to see you every day, and we’re going to be on your case for you to continue to come every day. And if you don’t, we’re going to call, because it’s very obvious that Vladimir is not here.” You know, one of the things that hasn’t been proven as yet because there is no statistical data that confirms and shows, but you gotta know in your mind that small could eventually mean that it is a better concept. But it also has some challenges, too. In other words, you can’t offer as many (courses), because you don’t have as many staff, you can’t offer the variety that comes with comprehensive high schools.

In other words, you don’t have the economies of scale?

Right, right, right, exactly.

Does it increase the cost of administration? For example, instead of having one principal, we now have four?

No, we went into this thing with a different model. We have one principal who is in charge of two schools. So we have four schools, and now we have two principals, and each of those principals has two vice principals, so you have an administrator to accommodate all of those communities. As well as other support staff. But again, there is not a whole bunch of folks, I mean, it’s minimal at best.

So, what are some of the challenges that you face?

Well, when you open a place up, you have to certainly acknowledge the past, but you have to continue to look forward in implementing what folks said they wanted to see. What we want to see, we are going to establish a college-going culture, where every kid coming in as a ninth grader that will be there for four years, will be A-G (college-prep sequence) prepared. Not that every kid that walks onto that campus is going to go to college, but they will be prepared, and we’ll encourage them to explore all options. It’s a falsehood to think that every kid is going to go to college. Some do, but some don’t. But we’re going to prepare you — we may prepare you to be an astronaut, well that means that you can be a whole bunch of different things in between. We’re going to prepare you to be a college student. We’re going to give you every opportunity to be successful. We’re going to bracket, we’re going to provide extra assistance, whatever you may need. And then you’re going to make some choices.

Will crime be an issue at Lincoln?

Well, Vladimir, when you think about a school being a microcosm of society, which it is, you’re going to have challenges within the walls and the gates of those classrooms and on that campus. But when you go out and you proactively impart to students, your community and families that you’re going to make every effort — not just say you are, but we’re going to have some systems in place where our staff will be safe, our kids will be safe. And everyone that comes to that campus. We’re going to extend our boundaries.

And I have a definitive attitude — capital A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E — about kids that walk on that campus and what goes on. And my attitude is, the only reason that you come is for business, and if you’re going to come for any other reason, you won’t be at Lincoln High School. I’m not going to kick kids out, we won’t kick kids out, but we will arrange educational alternatives for them. It’s not a right that you have to walk on that campus, it’s a privilege, and you have to know that. I not only have high expectations for myself and the staff that have chosen to be a part of the new Lincoln High School, I have high expectation of every kid, every parent that comes, and is a part of it. They say they want us to have high expectations? Well you better doggone too.

And I’m going to demand on a daily basis that I, you, and anybody else that comes on is expected to conduct themselves in the best possible way. We’re going to work with you, we’re going to try to convince you that those kind of illegal activities that you might be engaged in are not appropriate.

We’re going to do some conferences and those sort of things, and that sort of things. I understand, too, that I’m not going to save all of the trees in the forest. But I’m going to make damn sure that we save most of them. If they adhere to what we have set up, and the standards that we have set up, then we’re going to get it done. Because there is urgency in Southeast San Diego, there is an urgency on my part, I don’t have a lot of time, they don’t have a lot of time. When Lincoln High School opens, as I’ve been trying to convey to the community, the kids, the community, the parents better be ready to adhere to all of those things they said they wanted, because you’re damn straight I’m going to implement them. …

When you walk on that campus during class time, you’re going to say, “Well, Mel, where is everybody?” And I’m going to reply, “Where they should be, in the class.” The bell will ring after an hour and a half, and they’re going to flood into their respective quads and have nutrition, and when that bell rings again, they’ll go back. And you will see up and down and around the quads and the corridors and hopefully you’ll be able to tell once you walk on that campus the feeling that this is a place of learning, and it’s always going to be that, whether I’m there or not.

A slightly different question. There has been criticism of the superintendent for trying to create — I think the expression they have is “Long Beach South,” trying to recreate Long Beach in San Diego. Do you think that’s fair?

No, not at all. Carl Cohn is not trying to create “Long Beach South.” That’s somebody else’s take on the situation. I would never try to create Lincoln High School as Long Beach Poly, because it’s a totally different culture, a totally different community. He has the expertise that has gotten Long Beach where it is today. … It’s a refinement of what’s already here, because what’s already here is good stuff. Every system has some failing points, and what he’s trying to do is refine and maybe provide a different direction, because I know what his vision is, and I hope other people do to. …

I’ve been here 10 months, we talk about Lincoln High School, but he has never said you have to do X, Y, and Z. Because he knows what my style is, he knows that I know how to do what I have to do. And he’s the kind of leader who hires Vladimir and says, that’s your job, I’ll step back and let you do your job, because I have a whole bunch of other stuff I have to be doing.

So, having seen both Long Beach and San Diego, what sort of similarities and what sort of differences do you see?

Well, I always look for the positive in the similarities. I see a lot of passion from a lot of good, qualified people, but I can only speak for Lincoln High School and the southeast community. A lot of people who are really passionate about the success of Lincoln High School, the success of schools in San Diego. I see people who want to be involved. I see parents in the community who want to take part and say, “What help you need, I will provide.” There have been many people who have stepped forward, walked in to help us, no pay, to organize our orientation, or organize our enrollment. I see a lot of positives.

On the other side, I see people who are unsure about their role is in a number of different areas. But beyond that, somewhat unsure about the intent of the superintendent. I’ve heard said that folks want him to tell them what to do, to give them some direction. Well, I look at it as, my direction is to organize Lincoln High School, and he’s not telling me how to do it. My take on the situation is that those people who are in charge need to take the responsibility, do what they have to do with their school, and be responsible for it. Certainly, everything that happens on that campus, I’m responsible for, and I’m not shirking that responsibility. Not that they are. But I think the leadership in the past has demanded that, “We’re going to give you directions on what to do.” Well, these are competent folks who know what they can do. All they gotta do is go do it.

— Interview by VLADIMIR KOGAN

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