By Jane Northrop
Pacifica Tribune Staff Writer
Donald West, the new principal of Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School, is an educational leader who loves the middle school years for the unique role they play in students' lives.
He likes it so much, he has spent the last 23 years of his career in middle school.
He has gained experience providing students the best educational and emotional experience they can have at that age.
"I like IBL because I like the true middle school concept with advisories and electives, and takes care of the social and emotional needs of students," he said.
Because of the requirements of No Child Left Behind, other schools have been forced to forgo electives to drill students in their core work with long block periods of study. Even though IBL is in the second year of program improvement for its economically disadvantaged students, the school staff has not lost a single elective. Helping students blossom emotionally has been a priority.
Raised in Mississippi, West studied broadcast journalism in college. He began his career in radio, then reported for a major television station in Florida. Later he worked as a media specialist with a Florida university. In the marketing department, he made an educational video about the education department. It was so good, he was recruited himself into the education department and set forth on a new career path.
He started teaching English in Tampa and received training there about teaching middle school.In Tampa, where the school district encompassed the whole county, students had attended a different school for each grade of middle school. There were four middle schools in a relatively small geographical area so West had an opportunity to immerse himself in learning about how to be an effective educator for that age group. He was so well liked, in fact, he earned a promotion from one of the regular public schools to one of the magnet schools. There he taught video production and drama.
He spent 10 years in Florida, then moved to the Bay Area. He first worked in a Richmond middle school teaching English and journalism. He successfully earned a grant to wire the school for broadcasts. Next, he worked as a vice principal in San Ramon, then moved up to become principal in a Hayward school before coming to Pacifica.
"I went from a low performing school to a high performing school and from an ethnically diverse school to one that is not so much," he said.
He lives in Oakland with his partner and their two dogs. He volunteers with an organization that helps homeless youth in Oakland. He keeps up with his fun reading with a book club. Lately, however, he said he's been reading a lot of self-help books and books about education.
The rest of his family is in the South and it's a large family. He has 36 aunts and uncles. He grew up in Natches, Mississippi in a politically active family. His uncle was the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and the first black mayor of Natches, Mississippi. He is one of six siblings and he has a fraternal twin brother who is a welder in New Orleans. One of his uncles is an engineer who helped rebuild the New Orleans levee. He was quite happy to see them hold up against Hurricane Issac last week. Most of the women in the family pursued a career in education. His aunt introduced him to the great modern black writers, which he loved to read.
"I knew I'd be in education one day," West said. "I've been happy teaching. As an administrator, I focus on getting equal access."
He is working on his doctorate in educational leadership for social justice at Cal State East Bay.
"I saw inequities when I started teaching," he said.
He grew up in all black schools, where the inequities were not as apparent as in diverse schools. There he saw black kids who were not getting into honors classes.
"Why is there an achievement gap the longer they stay in school?" he asked, and looked to society and to the educational system for the answers. Still searching, he is pursuing some of these big issues in his doctoral work.
At Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School, he sees an achievement gap among the socio-economically disadvantaged population. He plans to be observant and try to discover the causes.
"We'll see what we can do as a school to make sure the whole school is achieving," he said.
The community has been welcoming, and he has enjoyed discovering IBL's traditions.
"You can tell this school is a community base. There are traditions here. I want to keep those going by keeping moving forward," he said.
He is aware some of the students might suffer a slight academic decline because of attending a new school, as some people do as they transition to high schools, but he and the staff are working to decrease the impact of the change. The sixth graders don't change classes as often as the seventh graders.
West loves the middle school years.
"For middle school students, every day is a new day. They don't carry grudges, like adults do. It takes a special kind of person to address their emotional and social issues. If students feel respected and heard, you can teach them anything. Everyone here shares that same philosophy. The kids are awesome," he said.