Dani Shear with Honorary Mayor of Pacific Palisades, Jake Steinfeld and school Principal, Alberto Hananel.

Dani Shear with Honorary Mayor of Pacific Palisades, Jake Steinfeld and school Principal, Alberto Hananel.

As I wrote in one of my first blogs for FreshSchools, the turnover rate for Principals is disturbingly high.  Many don’t even make it past two years.  Being a parent, I’ve heard grumbles about the “administration” for years in various schools.  I had my own personal gripe last year which brought me to my knees.  I decided I wanted to know what it’s like on the other side.  So, I interviewed our brand new principal at my children’s elementary school.  His name is Dr. Alberto Hananel and he is a lovely, soft- spoken man who made time for me so I could get a feel for what it’s like at the top.

My first question for him is whether a kid should be Principal for the day?

Absolutely.  I don’t have a problem with that.  If it’s for a fundraiser and it builds community spirit.  Why not?  But I’d have to warn the student, it can be lonely at the top.

He smiles.  Lonely at the top, people.

Most folks do not realize what it takes to be Principal.  Most of the time, it’s exhausting.

Dr. Hananel goes on to say that principals have to deal with a multitude of characters and personalities from parents, teachers, students and even neighbors.

There’s this neighbor who is relentless.  She complains about the carpool situation, the noise, the parents who park partially on the lip of her driveway. She calls daily.

Apparently, this neighbor moved into the hood 20 years ago and has been infamous for being a perpetual complainer. She is on a mission to get all the side streets PERMIT PARKING ONLY.  That way, no parent could ever park by the school and walk their child in.  Um…lady…I know it must be a drag to live right by a school but guess what…YOU LIVE RIGHT BY A SCHOOL.  Since the school has been in operation since 1955, you knew full well it was here when you decided to buy into the hood.

My blood pressure shoots up and I’m not even the one getting the phone calls.

But it’s important to have an open door policy…with everyone.  It’s important to be a good listener and be approachable, compassionate and…patient.  It really is a virtue.

During a Kinder “coffee with the Principal”, one Mom spoke up about seeing the kids all swarmed around the new principal during recess. “You’d think he was Justin Bieber or something,” she whispered to me.

I love my interactions with the kids.  It’s my most precious time.

Dr. Hananel has implemented a “word of the week” game with all the students.  The children learn the word from their individual teachers and then they must trek him down (during recess or lunch) and give him the correct spelling and meaning of the word.  They must also use it in a sentence. If they succeed, the students get a treat.  That’s a lot of treats the good Principal must buy. He gets a gleam in his eye when he speaks about it.

It’s my one-on-one time with the kids. I don’t get too many opportunities.  Some children struggle with it, but they are determined and eventually, they get there. It’s pretty cool.

Observing this new principal, he seems so unfazed, so calm and collected. What rattles him, I wonder…

I ALWAYS have first-day-of-school jitters. Even after being an administrator for 16 years. I never sleep well the night before in anticipation of the new job, new school year.

Dr. Hananel was an Academic Dean at a middle school in Mexico City.  I ask him if he thinks we should teach our kids Spanish in elementary school here in California?

I’m a strong believer in bilingual education (more specifically dual immersion programs)- students become not only bilingual but bi-literate which is much more important.  We are the only country in the world that does not promote bilingualism. It’s a shame since most people have roots from outside the country.  I speak three languages and my parents speak six each.

How is the education system different here vs. Mexico?

There is a national (federal) education system in MX (Secretaria de Educacion Publica) National Secretiate of Education – it dictates what will be taught and provides books for all…so if a child lives in the North and moves to the South due to the terrible drug situation, he/she will practically be on the same page as his/her peers.  Unfortunately, public education teachers are paid very poorly. They go on strike all the time which affects everyone.

As I speak with the Principal, he gets called away for a meeting with the Instructional Leadership Team.  After that, he wants in on the classroom.  As busy as he is, he tells me he tries to get into the classrooms as much as possible.

I get a buzz from seeing the teaching and learning that is going on.

“Dr. H, you’re a total nerd ball.”  

Yes I am.  He laughs.

“But, come on” I nudge.  “Don’t you ever want to be the Wizard behind the curtain?”

Nah.  My dad once told me something that I try to remember every day.  People don’t work for you, they work with you.

And with that, he’s off.


Miracle On Marquez Avenue by Dani Shear

This is FreshSchools, so why not talk about a FRESH teaching perspective?

Meet Mr. Jeffrey Lantos, a fifth grade teacher at Marquez Elementary in Pacific Palisades.
Mr. Lantos, or Mr. L, as his students call him, is an icon (read: rock star) at the school. Sometimes, even in the mire and mandates that are LAUSD, miracles happen.
It was a miracle
               In Philadelphia
                             It was a miracle, it’s true
                                                            Fifty five men who sat right here,
                                                                                   knew what they had to do.
–from Miracle in Philadelphia, music by Bill Augustine, lyrics by Jeff Lantos.

Jeff Lantos is that miracle.

Now, full disclosure. I’m a Mr. L groupie. There are many of us out there.

Way before Common Core, Mr. Lantos was teaching critical thinking and finding solutions to problems through a student’s musical core.

Much has been written about the visionary teacher who combines history with fine arts. Such a simple premise…you’ve got to wonder if teachers around the country are thinking, “darn, why didn’t I think of that?”

Let’s face it, it’s all in the execution. Mr. Lantos spent many long hours penning shows about the constitution (Miracle in Philadelphia), the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Hello Louisiana) and the burgeoning industrial revolution, specifically the mill workers’ strike in Lowell, MA. (Water & Power) and made them toe-tapping, body-swaying, history-buff-pleasing FUN!

Every morning, while students in other classes are turning in their homework assignments or sitting for roll call, Mr. L’s students gather around his piano. With the maestro playing, the repertoire ranges from Sinatra to show tunes. Students also practice the songs from the history musicals that make up their fifth grade program.

But it’s not just history. When one of his math-challenged students solves a long division problem, Mr. L jumps to his piano and the whole class bursts into song. Some of the girls move to the front of the class, having added Beyonce-like choreography to the number. It is a signature piece, created specifically for a certain fifth grader in need of encouragement. For a moment, you think you’re watching an episode of Glee, except that Mr. L has been doing it this way before the show was a pitch in the creator’s head. It’s just how Mr. L. rolls.

I sat in on a couple of Mr. L’s classes and was bowled over by how cheery, confident and stimulated the children were. These are no wall flowers. Students are jumping up, shouting out answers, contributing to debates and humming tunes. There’s a joyous chaos to the class that is totally infectious. Getting ready for a Veterans Day assembly, Mr. L’s voice became soft and hushed. He spoke with reverence of his father who had been a veteran, but he also shared his opinion of the ravages of war. Every child was riveted and soon an animated discussion broke out about veterans and the meaning of the day. I left realizing that it’s not how loud a teacher speaks, but who he is and what he says.

In Language Arts, Mr. Lantos asks the students to memorize and recite the words to The Raven, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, The Gettysburg Address, Route 66 and Trouble (think Robert Preston in The Music Man), to name a few. If a student performs a piece before it is due, he or she gets to choose as a treat a chocolate or a prune. How random and wonderful is that? And in case you are wondering, a prune has been chosen.

With a fresh and innovative approach to teaching, a fierce commitment to the arts and a hunger to push students to their creative limits, as Gene Kelly sang in An American In Paris, “who can ask for anything more?”

Volunteers Rule! by Dani Shear

Summer keeps getting shorter. The time to relax with the kids, unwind and disconnect is over before you need to heat the pool.   For most of us, back to school means the loss of precious family time. However, it may also mean returning to a comforting routine and increased freedom. For some of us, it means getting those TB shots and gearing up for volunteer duties.

Let’s get real, people. Why does it seem as if the same five people do all the volunteering in school? The same faces show up year after year to bake cookies for the school fundraiser, drive kids to a class field trip and get their hands dirty for the garden greening project. You can also bet these are the same folk who agree to be room parents and fill-in aides. Do they just have a different code system than the rest of us? In Corporate America, there are fiduciary duties by officers to the shareholders of the corporation. Aren’t we all officers in the corporation that is our family and isn’t one aspect of our corporation’s business the education of our children? Shouldn’t we be taking on our fiduciary duties?

With this in mind, I began my volunteering “career” a few years ago, in my eldest daughter’s elementary school. I did not so much as volunteer as be tasked with a duty by an overworked mom, informing me that it was a job “you’d be perfect at.” She told me I’d be working with another mom and we’d get along famously because “you both are Jewish!” Alarm bells should have gone off.

It began with promise. I met with my new partner for coffee to formulate our plan of attack. When she had to leave for a European vacation, I took over the reins. All was smooth sailing until she returned from her trip. Suddenly, she became captain of our little skiff and never seemed satisfied with her skipper’s input or effort. My captain came from a corporate background; her skipper from an artistic one. While clearly this Alpha Mom is a good person with amazing organizational skills, she and I approached the job (and our lives) in a diametrically opposed manner. I was miserable. My first volunteering effort was a bust.

The following year, I was asked to volunteer. This time I chose a field of interest. I decided to work with a new friend who was low key, patient and blessed with a rollicking sense of humor. We were in charge of 5th grade graduation, a big job, but not demanding until the latter part of the year. From the middle of the year, we slowly and methodically read our 5th grade graduation “manifesto” and put our team in place, much like General Ulysses S. Grant before the capture of Richmond. There were no big surprises when the hectic last few weeks were upon us. Even the absence of a sound system with less than 24 hours to go couldn’t faze us. Order the plants for the stage? No problem, we already had our garden contact. Bargain with the stage rental providers?   No worries, we had bids to compare. Provide the food for the event? Easy, the 4th grade moms (a tradition) had long been prepped with a menu of past graduations.   Together, we pulled off one of the best graduations in years, not to mention a whimsical, first-of-its-kind 5th grade picnic, which was such a resounding success, 4th grade moms immediately contacted us wanting to know the specifics so they could book the same space for the following year.

My first two big volunteer experiences couldn’t have been more different. One experience would have gotten me fired on The Apprentice; the other would have made Donald Trump beam with pride. My advice: do the job that resonates with you and work with a partner with whom you connect. I cannot stress the latter enough. It’s hard enough giving up your free time, so make volunteering a joy, not a burden.

This reminds me of one reason I love Fresh Schools. It makes the process of volunteering that much easier by allowing volunteers to sign up and/or cancel quickly and efficiently. Gone is the time consuming search for lost contact information. All the contacts and information are on the site, one click away.

No fuss. No excuse. See you at school!