Tenacity, caring help turn around a failing urban middle school

Despite high crime rates, low expectations for student success, a significant suspension rate, and high teacher turnover, the principal of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley Middle School has transformed the school into a safe haven.

And what’s most significant is that Principal James Dierke, a native of San Francisco, transformed the failing school from within traditional public school system.

Dierke is the subject of a short film called "Leadership Model for Urban Middle Schools." In the film, Dierke discusses how he was able to turn the failing school around.

The film is one of 12 in a film series called "A 21st Century Education," produced by the Mobile Learning Institute–an initiative funded by the Pearson Foundation and Nokia. The point of the series is to start conversations about 21st-century education and school reform.

"What was interesting about [Dierke], to me, was the fact that he was able to accomplish what he’s been able to accomplish from within the system," said Stephen Brown, the producer of the film series. "It showed you don’t have to necessarily start a private school or a charter school or something else. You can actually work within the system and make really great things happen inside of your school."

Dierke has worked in the San Francisco Unified School District for 38 years. He spent 24 years as a special education teacher. He also was a high school teacher, a department head, and a dean of students.

He has received many awards. He was named Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators in 2005-06. In 2008, he was named  National Middle School Principal of the Year  by the National Association of Secondary Principals.

The film shows Dierke starting his day, from parking his car, to sitting at his desk, to talking to students. "Are you ready for the day?" he asks one student. "Good morning. I enjoyed reading your essay," he says to another, revealing the caring, personal approach that has been one of his keys to success.

He has been principal of Visitacion for the last nine years. He was challenged with high turnover, poor communication among staff, unhappy students, and even occasional violence.

"I’ve been here, putting together a staff these past nine years, and trying to promote change in a school that time had literally forgotten," Dierke says in the film. "I come from a background of seeing many things that did work. You know, where the lights worked, the floors were clean, where someone picked up the trash everyday, to a place where no one cared if the lights worked."

To create a culture where learning was encouraged, Dierke created social programs in the school. Nearly every teacher runs a club or program. Students can participate in dance, arts, music, golf, and chess. One-third of the students are learning to play instruments such as the guitar or drums. As an alternative to the schoolyard, a wellness center opens during the lunch hour with computers, college information, and art tools. Dierke also mandated algebra for all eighth graders so they wouldn’t be behind when they got to high school.  

"He just insisted that it happen," Brown said. "Through being tenacious and being really caring, he managed to pull together a school that succeeds now."

Providing students with individual opportunities through clubs and programs was key.
He also convinced staff to work together and to accept the challenge of making a difference.

"We developed a saying that every day we wanted to have at least one victory. When you are driving home at night, you could say, ‘Well, we fixed that or we got that to work.’ That became the challenge. It wasn’t to do one big thing, it was to do many small things [that] add up to the big thing," Dierke said.

Two years ago, the school also adopted quiet meditation time. The students meditate twice a day for 12 minutes in the morning and 12 minutes at the end of the day.

"What we have found is that it lowers the stress level and gets everyone in a better place so they can learn. It has cut my suspension rate in half, which is remarkable, and it’s also made things much more pleasant around here," Dierke says.

"When I was a teacher, I taught the kids no one else wanted. In fact, it got to be a joke at the high school. They would send me kids [who] didn’t fit in; they were the square pegs in the round hole. Those kids got to be known as Dierke’s Jerkies. The kids thought that was a red badge of courage. They were finally accepted by somebody. I’ve kind of extended that to this school, to this position."

Through strong leadership, Dierke created a sense of family within the school environment.

"I’m sure we’ve all been there: ‘Oh, I’ve got to go there again today.’ I don’t feel that way about this place at all. I don’t think my fellow educators feel that way about this place. It’s exciting. There’s always something going on. There’s people [who] are doing stuff."

"With strong leadership, it’s possible to do things in a public school setting. It’s possible to put together a set of programs that are geared toward kids’ success, even in situations where you think it’s hopeless," Brown said. "Jim Dierke was able to come into a situation where he was asked to turn around one of the poorest performing schools in the city. Through sheer force of will and the ability to galvanize teachers within his staff, he was able to create a success story out of a school that a lot of people had given up on."

He concluded: "The big message really is a person with the right approach can make positive change happen in schools. It doesn’t have to be a total radical reinventing of the school to do that. You can come in and work with the available resources, and you can make a success story."


Leadership Models for Urban Middle Schools

Mobile Learning Institute’s film series, "A 21st Century Education"

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