As Dr. Ted Barone approaches his final days at Albany High School after eight years as principal, The Cougar sits down to ask him a few questions.
What made you want to become an administrator?
When I was a teacher working in San Francisco Unified I organized a group of teachers to try to bring some big changes to a high school I was teaching at and we made great progress, with teachers and parents really starting to control the school. The principal was promoted and a new person was brought in and basically destroyed everything we were doing.
I realized the power of a principal at that point to both build and destroy stuff and I thought that it would be best if I could move into a position where I could build stuff, and stop things from being destroyed. That’s the essence of it.
Have you seen where teachers at Albany High School organize to get things done?
That was one of my main reasons to become an administrator, to help teachers build the school. If the teachers are professionally integrated in a responsible and really integral fashion, and really focused on what is best for students and open to change, they can do really incredible things. They need an administrative team to facilitate that.
What do you view as your greatest accomplishment at Albany High?
Part of the challenge of such a question is that there is an implication that there is a single person who accomplishes things. This is not true. There is not a single person. There is no teacher, nor anybody, who does really important things by themselves. I think this goes for pretty much anything, any organizational accomplishment. It takes a team. Part of the role of a leader, in the case myself as principal, is to build a team that can accomplish things.
That being said, the biggest thing I think we have accomplished as a team is to engineer a transparency here in how students are evaluated for their work. When I started here eight years ago there was no online grading, the website was very weak, the communication system was very weak. The traditional way teachers operated was having their gradebooks written out, maybe on a computer but not shared with anybody, not available to students and parents to look at to see progress. None of that existed.
When we opened the transparency of assessment it caused kind of an avalanche of change. Because then we started to look at what it was that we are teaching and how we assess it. How do we learn what students could do or could not do regarding what we wanted them to learn, and how do we respond to that. These are all changes that have taken place and continue to take place. It’s an evolutionary process. But that is the most significant thing we have done — increasing transparency about how students are graded. It just has so many implications.
Is there anything that if you had more time you’d like to see done going forward about this assessment transparency?
Yes, there is a group of teachers now that we have been trying to make this happen but it is really difficult. They are working to change the grading system so it is not points based so you are penalized for not knowing something at the beginning of the year. Let say you get a D or F on a test because you didn’t understand something and then later on you get an A, which reflects deep understanding of that same topic. Yet you are still held down by that early D or F. What I would like to see, and we have a group of teachers who are committed to making this happen, is what we are calling standards-based grading where basically, the grading system we have is reflecting students progress towards the goals, the standards. A grading system where a student is able to monitor their progress and actually learning something. As they learn something, the grade reflects their mastery or proficiency and not how many assignments they turned in. That’s something I would love to see happen and I think we are set up and there is a group of I think a dozen teachers who are working on that area. We should be piloting something next year.
Do you ever get tired of dealing with high school students?
(Laughs.) No. No. No offense. Kids are kids. I love working with students. I love working watching my own kids grow up and move on. There’s a spirit and innocence and drive — a potential that is really marvelous. Yes, there are times when people drive you crazy and you wish things would happen differently, but that’s humanity and if you don’t like humanity, you shouldn’t be working in school. Kids are just humanity, that’s all.
What was your motivation to get a doctorate? What was it like to pursue a degree while working a job?
I wanted to get my doctorate because I have been really interested in policy. Like bigger state policy, education policy issues. And I had a thought that getting a doctorate from a credential perspective and a knowledge base perspective would really help me achieve that goal. Whether that will happen or not I don’t know. The great benefit of it was that it changed the way I think, the way I analyze. It was actually a really great thing to have done. I think I am a much better thinker, a better planner. The way I approach a problem is very different and I think much healthier.
Doing it while I was full-time principal at Albany High was quite remarkable. I decided to treat it like a hobby. You know if you are really passionate about a hobby, you’ll spend hours doing it. So, I was spending two to three hours a day on it, it was like what someone who is a wood carver or a musician or whatever would do, so I just had to get into that mindset and commit myself and my family to it wholesale. In retrospect it was kind of unimaginable how I did it. But, I will never regret it. It was a great thing to have done.
Did you have to push away any other pastimes in order to make time for it?
Oh yeah. I was starting to play some music at that time and that stopped. Time with family, time focused on the detail of this job. My attention to this job in one sense might have suffered, but I think I became much more effective, so it balanced out.
What are some of your greatest memories as principal of Albany High School?
The volleyball state championships were incredible event, that was so much fun.
The first time the jazz band played at Yoshi’s and every time since, but that first time was really wonderful.
I love the spirit during Homecoming Week. I mean just the whole event. Early on it was not as fun, because we were putting limits on activities. Like the powder puff game, kids so badly wanted the powder puff game. But there had been reports of all kinds of really rough play, so we decided to bring it inside so it was more controlled and much more fun with with cheering and the yelling.
When we won the State Civic Award several years ago we had a State Supreme Court Justice here, presenting the award and two of our students engaged with her in a debate and that was just awesome. It was incredible.
I love the comradery of the faculty.
I love the Club Rush days, those are always great.
And this is a little more esoteric, but my third year we had the accreditation team, you know the WASC visit. You need to know the year before I got here this school was barely accredited. I mean for so many reasons we barely got our accreditation and they were thinking of only giving us a one-year accreditation and ultimately gave us a three-year accreditation. When they came back and made their presentation to the faculty, they had tears in their eyes because we had made so much progress. That was really exciting. That was one of my best memories.
What was the most difficult thing you have had to deal with as a principal?
The events of 2012, that’s got to be it. That was an horrific series of events on so many levels. Obviously, the allegations that came out, I mean I was fully involved with that, so the earliest reports of what took place, we were uncovering and that was all happening here, so I had very intimate involvement with that and it was brutal all by itself.
And then the cascade of disasters that followed those early reports and the management of the trauma. It was a remarkable series of events. In one sense, it was a really deep low for the community, for the entire community, but in another sense, it was beautiful to watch people come together, especially at this school. I know the middle school was a mess. I can’t speak for that place. But at this school, how our faculty handled it, how our community handled it, with great respect, with great sensitivity. Our crisis response team, we learned so much that we applied when Miko passed. It was a beautiful thing to behold out of the fire.
That was clearly the toughest part of what we had to do out of a lot of really tough issues we have had to deal with, but that is clearly the biggest, the toughest.
Did you ever have to deal with events such as these in your past as an educator?
Not to this degree. I was a vice principal at a high school in San Francisco where we had a shooting on campus and that was difficult. I leaned a lot from that situation that I applied not just in 2012, but all that lock down stuff that we do. It wasn’t done before I got here. Fortunately, nobody died, someone was hit. Learning how to deal with the police, with the community, how to communicate.
Did you have any goals that you wanted to accomplish when you first came to the job? How well would you say you’ve achieved these goals?
This goes back to why I became an administrator. I’ve always seen teaching as a very political act. It’s political because it is empowering students to make decisions about their lives and be responsible and be analytical. That’s power. It’s also about empowering staff to take leadership to build a program that does this thing of empowering youth. So that’s the goal I came with. I want to empower students and staff with integrity, with responsibility, with professionalism. There’s a difference between that kind of power and mob power and we’ve certainly had experience with that kind of power here too.
It’s an evolutionary process and I think we’ve made great progress. As an evolution goes, it never ends.
Looking back, how has your perspective on Albany High changed?
I don’t think it has changed very much. I think it is a much better place. We have a much better staff. We have moved some people out who were not excellent. We have made some incredible hires. Some of the people we have hired are awesome educators.
Students have taken on more of a leadership role than they used to, and I like that a lot.
There are physical changes on campus, new pool, new modular classrooms.
But it is still Albany High School. It is still the Albany community. Form that sense, my perspective really hasn’t changed that much.
What qualities make Albany High unique among the schools for which you have worked?
People are really committed to the success of the students here and that includes students too. Students really care a lot about their education here. The commitment of the community is terrific. I see more people working harder here than at any place I have worked. More people staying late. Every lunch, every advisory, teachers staying in their classrooms working with their students. When I leave here at six o’clock, there are still plenty of teachers here working hard. That’s special.
It’s a very positive place. It’s a very kind and caring place. I love watching new students come in and just get enveloped by other students. Everybody has their niche. There’s a lack of cliques. People have their groupings but it doesn’t feel cliquey, where you reject other people. That’s really special.
Another thing I think is really cool is that people are not afraid of hard work. They know what it takes. I think it is competitive here, but not in a cutthroat kind of way. People want to work really hard, but they seem to be “let’s all do this together.” Not all the time of course, but more so than at any other place I have worked.
What qualities does the future adminstrator need to possess to continue moving the school in a positive direction?
It’s a very unique job. They will come in with their own personality and style. They will bring changes no matter what. It’s just the nature of the beast.
But to continue in this positive direction they need to share the vision of transparency and empowerment. That’s what we have been working really hard to develop. I think we have established some deep roots. That was my whole goal: to make it difficult for a new person to come in and destroy that. They’d have to bomb deep to get at that.
They need to be incredibly patient. This job requires extraordinary patience. You can say something, you can put out a goal, you can urge, you can cajole, things do change, but it takes patience.
Fortitude is really important. I don’t see this in a lot in administrators, unfortunately. The fortitude to stand up for what is right and take the heat for it. There’s a lot of heat in this job. You have to be really committed to what you believe in and be ready to take the heat for it.
It’s a really complex job and the next person has to have a rich intellect. You’ve got to be smart to handle the complexity and keep track of everything and see how the patterns move. High school is a very live and dynamic organism. Add you have you be smart to see it all and manage it.
What are you looking forward to in retirement?
I am really looking forward to being able to explore a different direction, really new stuff. I am young enough, where I have many years ahead, and my brain is functioning, apparently, as far as I can tell.
I left high school planning to be an environmental scientist and for any number of different reasons went in different directions, but I really want to get back into that and study the science. I’m not going to become a teacher or anything like that, but I will engage myself with nonprofits that are about protecting the environment. We are screwing up the environment so bad. My last phase is to hopefully turn that tide.
I’m looking forward to spending time with my wife and pursuing music. I love music and played when I was a kid. I picked up the guitar as a kid and sort of bashed around with it. I want to spend 10 years getting really good at it and I think I can.
What are you going to miss most about your job?
The most obvious answer is relationships. Relationships with my administrative team, with teachers and certainly with students. I love the relationships I get to have with so many people. That’s really fun. It’s enriching and satisfying.
I love the intensity of the job, the complexity, the challenge of it, but particularly the intensity of it, that’s something I thrive on.
Being a leader is really a cool spot. Leadership comes in many forms. Being a principal of a high school is a very unique spot. I will miss that.
One of the things that was most shocking when I became a principal was how much people paid attention to what you say. When you are a teacher, some number of students pay attention. When you’re a vice principal you fly under the radar. It’s really cool job. You can do lots of stuff, but you fly under the radar.
But as soon as you become “the one” that is both risky but remarkably powerful, if you handle it right. That’s a true leadership role where you have both an institutional role but you have the ability to be a leader and experience what that is. I will definitely miss that a lot.
It’s unusual for a principal to stay for eight years. What drove you to stick around at Albany High?
It was always a never-ending fascination. It’s a very interesting place and we made great progress. We kept pushing to get to the holy grail which is the standards-based grading thing I mentioned. If this school can achieve that, it will achieve something really unique and important that I think will change the face of public education in a big way.
Other schools are trying it. We are not unique. Other schools are not doing it well.
Certainly from a systems perspective, a state systems, nobody is getting it, so that kept me going.
Just that satisfaction of being here and working with great people made me happy to come to work every day.