Esther Kang

Leading with Youth: The young principal at the helm of Palos Verdes High School

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At 37, PVHS Principal Charles Park is steering one of the best public high schools in the state to greater success

Principal Charles Park inside his office at Palos Verdes High School. Photo by Esther Kang

Principal Charles Park inside his office at Palos Verdes High School. Photo by Esther Kang

His introduction to the American public education system is still vivid in the mind.

Born in South Korea, Charles Park and his family immigrated to Stanton, California when he was 7 years old. His father owned a successful plush toys business in Korea and sought to expand it to the States. The transition wasn’t easy, Park remembers, from his family’s integration into a new culture to his initial brush with the English language as a second grader.

“I still remember my first teacher there — Mrs. Gaskins,” he animatedly recalls. “She didn’t know what to do with me because I was the only ESL kid in the class. I remember she had me read the same book over and over, about Jane and the motorcycle. That’s how I picked up English.”

Today, at 37, Park is in his second year as the principal of Palos Verdes High School, a nationally top-ranking public school situated oceanside in Palos Verdes Estates. Stylish in attire and light in spirit, the youthful father of two toddler daughters exudes modesty, reiterating how lucky he is to be in this position. But as Park recounts his 16-year journey in education, it becomes apparent his breadth of experience and expertise brought him here.

As a senior at East High School in Torrance, Park set out to become a doctor, as his parents wished. He had been accepted to UCLA and UC Berkeley as a pre-med major when he got a call from a professor of education at Pepperdine University, which at the time was “sort of on the radar” for him. The professor had read Park’s personal essay regarding his hope to do more than achieve material success for himself — to actually make a difference in the world — and invited him to join a three-year honors program in education, focused on community-based projects. He would be among the 12 students who graduated with both a bachelor’s degree and his teaching credentials. To the dismay of his parents, Park accepted the offer.

“Truth be told, in my sophomore year at Pepperdine I did a model lesson at a nearby elementary fourth grade class and I loved it,” he recalls. “I knew this was my calling, and there’s no way I’m gonna do something different.”

By age 22, Park was teaching middle school English and advising the school yearbook staff in the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

Several years in, he was tapped by the school principal to fill a temporary position as the dean of students, overseeing discipline for some 1,400 kids. At the time, Park was working on his doctorate of education at the University of Southern California. This marked an unplanned deviation into administrative work, which he found, to his surprise, very fulfilling. He discovered a love of working with students outside the classroom, from collaborating with the ASB to helping to locate a lost backpack.

“I think I had more fun than they did,” he says with a smile.

After a subsequent stint as assistant principal for a Garden Grove Unified middle school, he took on a career-defining challenge: acting as an associate principal at Pasadena Unified’s John Muir High School, ranked one of the worst-performing high schools in the state. The suspension rate was 927 that previous year, almost 52 expulsions. Referrals numbered 2250, with 62 students on probation.

“I couldn’t believe these numbers,” he says. “It was a very challenging first year, but I learned a lot. What I learned most is that for any child, regardless of their socioeconomic status and surrounding, the human spirit is such an incredible thing.”

The first time Park visited Palos Verdes High School, he was serving on visiting committee of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). For three days, he soaked in everything about the school: the students had such strong character, he remembered, and the teaching staff not only had pedigree but deep, evident knowledge in their subject areas. Plus, the ocean view was killer.

“I just walked away and said to myself, ‘Man, this is my idea of a perfect school,’” he recalled. “‘If I could send my own two kids to this great district, how great would that be?’ That was really the deciding point.”

At this point, he excitedly mentions that his 3-year-old daughter Lauren is starting her educational journey this week; she’s enrolled in an early learning academy in the district.

After the visit, he applied to work for the district. He quickly formed a bond with his predecessor, Nick Stephany, and was hired as associate principal. When Stephany left to become principal at Foothill High School last year, Park stepped up to fill the position.

“I wanted to be a part of a district where I fit well, felt comfortable and can really make it my home, and really serve eel for my family too,” he says. “And I couldn’t be happier.”

He speaks of his school, which has a student body of 1,650, like a proud parent. On his office’s desktop computer, he shows off the website of “Live from 205,” the high school’s nationally-acclaimed broadcast news program. He also mentions that at the 22nd annual JPL Regional Science Bowl several weeks ago, the PVHS team ranked third among 25 teams across six counties in Southern California.

Just last week, he was at Leuzinger High School to watch the soccer team, then girls basketball, then boys basketball. He was home around 10 p.m.

“It takes a lot of love and dedication,” he says. “With this work, you gotta love it.”

 

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