As Phil Winston takes the reins today as Palo Alto High School's newest principal, he intends to be a visible and accessible presence on campus.
The former Gunn High School vice principal said he plans to kick off his days by walking around the school and speaking to students, parents and staff.
"I'm anticipating being out with students in the morning, getting in the classrooms," said Winston, 33.
"It's not about being in the office behind a closed door," he continued. "If I wanted to do that I'd go into business. It's about being open and visible and being with folks."
Winston, of Milpitas, has been in education for about a decade, starting as a special-education teacher in the Milpitas Unified School District. He moved to Palo Alto's JLS Middle School in 2005 to teach before transferring to Gunn, where he worked as dean of students and assistant principal.
The married father of a 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter earned a degree in psychology from California State University, Hayward, and master's degrees in special education and educational administration from Santa Clara University.
Winston is taking over for Jacqueline McEvoy, who led Paly through the controversial "egg wars" investigation and developed a contentious relationship with some parents and students after implementing strict disciplinary policies. McEvoy, principal since July 1, 2007, announced her resignation at the beginning of the year.
He wouldn't comment on his predecessor's administration, but said, "You have rules and policies in place for a reason. They're to make sure you have a safe and healthy campus."
Though Winston declined to discuss the "egg wars," an unsanctioned annual tradition at Paly, he said he intends on "communicating to the students levels of expectations" and maintaining an open dialogue.
"It's about taking what they have to say into account in the decision-making process," Winston said. "But the school is responsible for everybody's health and safety, first and foremost."
During Winston's time at Gunn, the community experienced a string of suicides by five teenagers with ties to the school at or near the same Caltrain crossing between May 2009 and January 2010.
The community must keep the dialogue going on mental health issues facing high school students, Winston said.
"Having been directly and intimately involved in those suicides and supporting the Gunn community, there is no perfect textbook response -- you do what the community needs," he said.
Winston said mental health has always been an issue, not only in Palo Alto but for high school students across the country.
"It's not going anywhere," he said. "It's part of what we deal with all the time."
"I think continuing the conversation on a large scale in the community is really what's key here," he said.
As an example, Winston pointed to Project Safety Net, a partnership between the city and other organizations and individuals that develops strategies to support Palo Alto youths.
Winston wants his charges at Paly to know "that I'm open, that I'm accessible, that I'm a listener and that I want to get to know them so that we have some shared responsibility in this whole experience."
When students return to school today, he said they will be on a new block class system and bell schedule and see that some portable classrooms have been moved.
Winston doesn't anticipate any animosity when he watches Paly face off against rival Gunn, but "will just go and have fun."
In fact, Winston said he would like to hold an event, such as a dance, to bring the two schools together.
"I'd like to see the two communities do some collaborative work together," he said.
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