School of wow: How a team of forward thinking administrators reinvented century old Redondo Union High School
It’s 1:04 p.m. and 2pac’s “Changes” is playing over the public address system at Redondo Union High School.
“It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes,” the rapper urges. “Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live, and let’s change the way we treat each other.”
The music can be heard from every corner of the 56-acre campus, alerting students they have one minute to get to their fifth period class. 2pac’s lyrics, intentional or not, represent the ethos that has come to define Redondo Union’s recent, meteoric ascent.
“Don’t be late, guys,” principal Dr. Nicole Wesley says with friendly assertiveness to two students walking by. She said the music is one of the many measures she and her administrative team have implemented to help students.
Historically, Redondo Union has been the forgotten stepchild among local high schools. Only two public high schools serve Beach Cities residents — Mira Costa in Manhattan Beach and Redondo Union in Redondo Beach. Hermosa families can choose between the two schools. In the past, out of district students have also been able to attend Redondo. But not this year.
“We had almost 200 students request a permit to Redondo this year,” assistant principal Jens Brandt said. “We took zero, because we have no space.”
Mira Costa has historically surpassed Redondo Union in reputation and enrollment figures. Now, the tables are turning. The 2015 Niche Rankings placed the Redondo Beach Unified School District at #18 on their list of Best School Districts in California The rankings are based on dozens of key statistics and 4.6 million opinions from 280,000 students and parents. Manhattan Beach Unified School District placed #19.
The school is thriving academically, as reflected in its improved scores on the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s standardized testing metric. Typically, it is more difficult to move API scores dramatically upward in high schools, because they are larger and generally more socio-economically diverse than elementary and middle schools. High school students also tend to be more apathetic about the APIs, as they have no incentive to perform well, like they do in exit exams (in order to graduate) and college entry tests like the SATs.
Yet RUHS has jumped from a 758 school-wide API in 2009 to 856 in 2013.
Wesley said the shift started with the hiring of Superintendent Dr. Steven Keller.
Since his inaugural year in 2006, Keller has made boundary-pushing a priority. A level of risk is a tenet on which the administrative teams of his 12 schools are graded.
“We’re able to do what we do because we’re supported by our district,” Wesley said. “Some districts are not as progressive as ours…It’s really cool to have a superintendent who encourages you to take risks. As long as I’ve been here that’s always been a part of his evaluation process.”
Keller may have laid the first bricks but his staff and administration make up the building blocks. Eighty-five percent of the school budget goes to people — teachers, principals, custodians, counselors and coaches.
“If you don’t have caring people teaching, supporting, leading, if the people within those walls are not the best of the best, you can build the best mouse trap, but kids won’t come,” Keller said.
The district employs approximately 1,400 full and part-time 1,400 employees. In the past five years, Keller has personally interviewed about 750 of them.
Wesley and Brandt, who oversees athletics and facilities, were among Keller’s hirees, as were the high school’s two other assistant principals, Lindsley Corcoran and Anthony Bridi. Corcoran oversees counseling and scheduling and Bridi oversees special and career technical education.
“I want people who are different, who bring something unique to the table. I love knowing what their first and second jobs were. If they sold flowers on corners, worked as servers, worked in retail, as meatpackers. Not the silver spoon types. People who had to work hard to get to where they are now.”
“We grill ‘em. It’s uncomfortable,” Keller said. “This is not your cushy job. You can’t be Thrifty vanilla, five cents a scoop. We want the best ice cream that’s out there. You’re expected to be involved in PTA, and show up at football games. You’re going to be part of our learning community. If that bothers you, cool, don’t take the job.”
“He will push you to an uncomfortable point but support you,” Wesley said. “If someone isn’t encouraging you or supporting you, you become complacent.”
Complacency is no longer an option at RUHS. Keller said the responsibility for the school’s almost startlingly successful transformation lays squarely on the shoulders of the administrative team.
“They are ‘the choice of a new generation,’ as Pepsi used to claim,” he said. “They are an eclectic group of leaders who have varying opinions on life, education, parenting, and politics. Sitting in a room with the four of them planning and advocating for kids and programs requires me to have plenty of sleep and caffeine before this 50-year-old guy walks in the door. They are intense, kid-focused, full of life, and appropriately hilarious. Don’t hang out with them if you have thin skin. Finally, they are all ‘closers,’ which is a must working in RBUSD. The key ingredient, even glue, is Dr. Wesley. She is a great leadership model for all school administrators. I learn from her all of the time, in fact.”
Assistant principal Bridi agrees.
“We are lucky to have Nikki as our leader. She has a strong progressive vision for our students and staff,” he said. “Dr. Wesley exudes balance, she leads with a sense of purpose and compassion. She leads by developing relationships with students, parents, staff, and the community at large. She truly is the complete package.”
A boost from the voters
In 2008, Redondo Beach voters approved Measure C, a bond measure that provided $145 million dollars to the district, $94 million of which went to Redondo Union High School. About half of the $94 million went to upgrading the high school’s athletic facilities. The improvements included a 29,700 square foot gymnasium, another smaller gym, a new aquatic center, a field house with Olympic weightlifting equipment, two new turf fields, a new baseball stadium and a new softball field. Other improvements included a new administrative building, a student union and cafeteria, a new auditorium, a new science building and a new library.
The 16,700 square foot Student Services Building, known as the student union, is LEED-certified and has a gourmet cafeteria and roof deck.
“We spent the first two years doing grand openings,” Brandt said, noting that Lakers player Metta World Peace a.k.a. Ron Artest helped open the Sea Hawk Pavilion, or the “Big Gym,” as it’s referred to on campus. “We became the highlight of the community. This high school is very much like a community center. if you come here in the afternoon, evenings or on the weekends there’s always life. It’s like a little city.”
Measure Q, a $63 million technology bond approved in 2012, made the school solar-powered and provided funding for to give Google Chromebooks to every grade 3-12 student in the district.
“Our mindset is it’s job training for them,” said Brandt. Nationwide, only about five percent of K-12 students have their own computers. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to do research on a daily basis and to be even more prepared for the professional world.”
Courses offered at Redondo Union sound like the curriculum for a small liberal arts college. English class, a four year requisite for every student, include Noir Literature of Los Angeles/Literature of the 1980s. Juniors are offered Multicultural Literature, a survey of American and international literature. The class is dramatic departure from the WASP-heavy texts typical of high school English curriculums.
Tyler Davis, a senior at RUHS, credits his Film Criticism and Theory English class for renewing his passion for school, after two years of head butting with teachers.
“I was a cocky little kid,” Davis said about his freshman and sophomore years. “I lacked respect for authority. I would challenge the teachers. Mr. Brandt called me into his office the spring semester of my sophomore year for a meeting and I thought ‘This is just miserable.’ But I realized he wanted to help me. He would shake my hand and show me respect, say ‘Good morning, Tyler.’ I had never seen administrators like that before, who weren’t out to get me in trouble.”
Davis, 18 is writing a film script with a friend and is applying to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for Film Studies. Though he wouldn’t disclose what the script is about, he did say it “blossomed into a lot of deeper meanings” with “a whole philosophical side to it”.
“I think the most important thing to succeeding in high school is finding your passion,” Davis said. “Whether it’s a certain sport or drama, it will drive you to succeed in academics. Redondo has helped me find my passion. When I came in as a freshman, I was mediocre at everything. But now I get good grades so I can get into those schools.”
“Tyler and I, we bumped heads a few times, but now he’s got an understanding that people are here to support him,” Brandt said. “We talk and he feels comfortable coming to me. That’s high school, it’s not just about book knowledge, but about learning more about yourself and creating relationships with people — personal skills, when to show empathy, how to control anger. We’re trying to coach people and we’re all humble. We always have things to work on as well.”
“What we appreciate about Tyler is he has a sense of purpose, which doesn’t always have to be a sense of purpose in terms of athletics or extracurricular activities,” Brandt said. “It can be things outside of school.”
In the last three years, Redondo Union has added 19 new classes to its curriculum. Administrators encouraged teachers to reconsider the English curriculum. Crafting a new course can take anywhere from 40 to 80 hours of planning and teachers do this on their own time. But none complain.
“It feels like I’m starting my profession all over again,” said one teacher who has been at RUHS for seven years. “I’m so excited for this new class.”
Ann Bhare has been teaching biology at Redondo Union for 25 years. Two years ago, she began teaching a biomedical science program. It has become popular among kids for its “hands-on” approach to science. Bhare says the program prepares students for all sorts of medical careers.
Culinary arts teacher Kris Moon is teaching her students to make pumpkin pies. But Moon doesn’t simply teach them how to bake. She’s incorporated a nutritional component. Pumpkin seeds are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have antifungal, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties, she said. She also teaches knife safety.
“We have students select classes based on future goals,” assistant principal Lindsey Corcoran said. “We know that we have the options here, but how do we get kids to see that pathway is leading to something else? That starts with the selection of courses….We are really educating students that this isn’t just because you have to take it. There’s a bigger purpose to why you’re choosing classes. They are the different avenues that allow you to specialize in something. By junior or senior year, kids should have an idea. What do I want to do? Am I science minded student, humanities minded? Am I going to be the star of the play?”
Extracurriculars and athletics
This year, 2,607 students attend RUHS. About one-third participate in school athletics. Students can also join any of over 70 clubs, which run the gamut from Shakespeare to salsa dancing.
“We’re trying to reach every student,” said assistant principal Corcoran. “The goal is every student should have a place. We’re always pushing new programs and new pathways. We’re still trying to grab a cohort of kids who don’t feel involved on campus, like the skateboarding kids. Maybe we can have pro skateboarders come out, or maybe we should build a skate park.”
The administrative team knows when to play disciplinarian and when to loosen their ties and let their hair down.
“I got hit in the face this year during a dodgeball tournament,” Wesley said. “The kids love that kind of stuff. We’ll have our couple or rallies per year and there’s always some sort of staff participation where we compete against the students or make fun of ourselves.”
The quadfecta aren’t afraid to bust a move in front of kids, even playing off of a popular internet meme known as the Harlem Shake at a pep rally two years ago.
“About 40 of the staff members including a couple of us were down there,” Wesley recalled. “The kids had no idea what was about to happen, and we did the Harlem Shake and the kids went cra-a-a-zy.”
The team even donned physical education uniforms and videotaped themselves doing the physical fitness test required of all ninth graders.
“The mile is rough,” Wesley said. “But if we can do it, you can do it. Our physical fitness tests results have gone up every single year. We’re at 87 percent which is amazing.”
During lunch, Brandt donned a tank top and basketball shorts and led the staff in an intramural basketball game against students. Students aren’t afraid to get close and play defense.
“The human factor is so important,” Brandt said. “It speaks to that energy of connecting with one another. That’s the vibe you get on this campus. You see it everyday, in simple things, a sense of humour, joking around with people. It’s a great vibe to have with them. There’s not this fear with us. They also appreciate that we have high degree of humility. If we make a mistake, we’ll own up to it.”
The new athletics facility has a spacious dance room with floor to ceiling mirrors. On a recent Wednesday, dancers were moving in groups throughout the room. Teacher Jennifer Desert said the day’s lesson was to express emotion through movement. Students were given cards with an emotion and had to create a dance to express the emotion.
RUHS: past, present and future
An innovative curriculum has long been a characteristic of Union High School, as the high school was known when it opened in 1905. The school offered organ lessons starting in 1916, and the weekly school paper High Tide has been printed at the school since 1923. A 1947 course catalog promotes stenography, drawing, ceramics, woodshop, machine shop and bookkeeping.
“We really listen to the student voices and really try to keep them at the forefront of the decisions that we make as a team,” Corcoran said. “We want students to realize that what they say does matter and that they can change the culture of the campus.”
Brandt recalled this year’s Back to School Night.
“You can feel the energy during Back to School Night on campus. There’s an open dialogue between parents and teachers whenever things come up. The cliche ‘it takes a village’ — it’s true here.”
“Once a Seahawk, always a Seahawk,” said RUHS archivist Terry Martinez, who graduated in 1971. Redondo Beach City Councilman Pat Aust can testify to this sentiment. He and his wife Linda were high school sweethearts and got married after they graduated from Redondo Union. The Austs spent a recent weekend restoring an old mural that Pat had painted when he was in school. At every commencement ceremony, graduates from 50 years ago are acknowledged.
Martinez says the campus is a giant canvas and recalls how art teacher Hernandez used to call the campus a “museum without walls”.
“The spirit comes from the ground,” Martinez said. She doesn’t want to use the word “sacred” but something along those lines. She is pleased with how the administration has led the remodeling of the school into the 21st century while holding onto traditions.
“People ask where’s the center of Redondo Beach,” Keller said. “Is it the waterfront, the Pier, the beach, the Galleria? Is it the dog park? City Hall? There is no ambiguity now. Redondo Union is the center of the community. The community has invested in it — a 100 year investment. We’ve brought the lustre and the ‘wow’ factor to the school.”