Peninsula High Principal Mitzi Cress protects a legacy of student achievement while she keeps a keen eye on their wellbeing. Photo by Alexandra Mandekic/alexandramandekic.com
With her gifts, her background and the ideal mentor, Mitzi Cress was primed for the top job at Peninsula High
For Mitzi Cress, serving as principal of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School is a natural extension of a career that has seen her counsel the school’s high achieving students, take charge of the other counselors, and join the administration of longtime Principal Kelly Johnson, whom she describes as the ideal mentor.
Cress begins her second year in the school’s top job with Johnson’s example internalized into her own work, as she oversees a tradition of academic success and continues efforts to mitigate the stress upon students that can accompany their demanding goals.
“It’s a decision making job,” she said. “It’s constant judgment. Every day there are decisions made that impact teachers, students, staff members, parents.
“They can be small decisions or bigger ones, like, ‘I want a change of teacher.’ Usually that will be, ‘Let’s all get together and talk that out,’” Cress said. “I love that. I’ve always been a people-type person, I love human interaction, and I love solving problems.”
Before 10:30 on the morning of a reporter’s interview, Cress’ decisions included helping an overwhelmed employee prioritize work projects, and which six members of a 12-member committee would be called upon to attend an upcoming conference.
“I talked that through with the person who chairs the committee,” she said. “We discussed the balance of personalities and skills to bring to the conference, and how to bring varying viewpoints.”
In her first year at the helm of the 2,550-student school, Cress reinstituted the school “Zoo,” a block of cheering students who dress as animals for sports events. In the past even Principal Johnson found it problematic to be a zookeeper, closing the Zoo three separate times when the behavior got a bit too animal.
“A lot of people said don’t do it, don’t do it,” Cress said. “But [the zoo members] monitored themselves, and we didn’t have an incident. I went to all the games, and there were times when they would look over at me, and I would give them that look, and they would look back like they were saying okay, we understand.
“Let’s cheer for our team, and not cheer against the other team. Let’s keep it positive, and let’s not cheer against the referee because we think he made a bad decision. We won the [California Interscholastic Federation] sportsmanship award that year. I hope this continues. I hope we have a great bunch again this year.”
Taking the mantle
Cress, a fourth-generation area resident, arrived at the school as a counselor in 1995, advising students on social and emotional issues, and of course, “the college piece,” helping plot the student’s individual course at a high school that wins Blue Ribbon and California Distinguished School recognition and stands 60th in Newsweek magazine’s national rankings.
Cress moved into a leadership role as head counselor, and then in 2001 became associate principal with responsibilities including overseeing the counseling office, teacher evaluations and the master schedule.
She worked closely with Johnson, a school legend who began as a custodian more than four decades ago, became a teacher, and was principal for the 1991 merger of Miraleste, Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills high schools into the current Peninsula High.
“He was a great leader,” Cress noted. “He had strength, confidence, excellent judgment, he was always putting the kids first, and he had the willingness to make tough decisions if they were in the broader interest of the school community. He was compassionate, fair, understanding and he was able to think through each of his decisions.
“And working his way up gave him a perspective that a custodian is just as important as a principal, and the school cannot run unless everybody does their job and everybody’s job is respected.
“He was an incredible role model. I think about it every day, and I try to do my best to carry on his legacy.”
In 2008, Cress filled in while Johnson went out for a time on medical leave.
“He and I worked closely together,” Cress said. “He definitely prepared me for this job.”
She added that when she took the helm, “it just felt natural. This is my school, my school community. And we have a great staff – I tease them that they don’t need me — this place runs by itself.”
The campus Cress oversees is an especially diverse one, with kids from all over world who speak 40 languages. About 200 students are learning to speak English, and expect to be qualified for four-year colleges by the time they graduate. Some 25 students have disabilities, including autism and Down Syndrome, and are mainstreamed into regular classes.
Kids come to Peninsula High from overseas when their parents come to Southern California on long-term business, and the school hosts foreign delegations with the help of the U.S. State Department.
“I think that [diversity] is our greatest strength here,” Cress said. It creates a very rich environment, and it’s the real world. We are preparing our students for the real world.”
The students’ high achievement is reflected in the school’s numbers: 98 percent continue their education, and last year 83 percent completed all UC requirements, and 85 percent were accepted to four-year colleges.
As is the case with adults, Peninsula students are encouraged to balance their drive to succeed with a little stopping to smell the roses, or at least slowing down to get a whiff on the way by.
Cress said researchers find school students get stressed out and burned out if they cannot find that balance. At Peninsula, educators have pushed in recent years to encourage kids to get enough sleep, make time for breakfast, and add some recreation to their schedules, such as sandwiching a photography class in between all their honors courses.
Signs of stress such as eating disorders have appeared on campus, and one member of the school’s counseling staff is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor who focuses on relieving student stress.
“We have some incredibly high achieving kids here, and sometimes we have to say, ‘You’re getting straight A’s, and you won a national merit [scholarship] – what do you do for fun? When do you take a break?’” Cress said. “Sometimes they are so future focused that they are missing out on an incredible time.”
Finding balance in their lives also helps students better deal with the stresses of college life after they have moved away from home, she explained.
Cress counts among the student stressors the increased emphasis on standardized academic testing, and said it could be leavened a bit.
The testing is “part of what we have to do,” but paints only part of the picture, she said.
“Character, well being, resilience, motivation, problem solving, engagement – there are things that can’t be measured by standardized tests,” she said.
Kids take high school exit exams, the comprehensive STAR tests, and separate testing that is related to advanced placement programs.
“It would be my goal to have a little less testing, especially for schools like ours,” she said. “If we’re meeting our goals, maybe they could test us every other year, or every third year. Obviously, you want to hold us to a standard, but if a school site performs well, I don’t think it will fall apart in one year.
“I have expressed this at conferences with state officials – and if we are doing our job we should get a bye.”
Home and hearth
When Cress wants to de-stress, she and husband Hoby – a principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District whom she met when they were students at Miraleste High – travel around in a motor home or visit places like Machu Picchu or the Great Barrier Reef, or boat to Catalina pretending that Two Harbors is “a far away island, our own little hideaway.”
She and Hoby have three kids and two grandkids.
“I like to have lots of joy around me,” she said. “It’s a serious job. I’m responsible for 2,550 students, and faculty and staff, every day. They’re my family. I have to take care of everybody, and there has to be a lot of joy, and celebration of achievement, for us all.”