Valley Community Newspapers
(Editor’s Note: This story came about as a request to plug the students’ art show on Saturday, not to brag about the school, but Principal Kenneth Durham’s passion for education was expressed and what follows is an interview with this new administrator at Sacramento New Technology High School.)
Charged with the task to boost enrollment by about 130 students, Kenneth Durham, the new principal at Sacramento New Technology High School, wants the school to stand on its own as a place worth promoting before actually promoting it.
Told that he wasn’t holding enough events, doing enough recruiting, Durham said he told his boss he really needs to make New Tech the place the school community and district want it to be. “And, after we have that right, then we will share our story. I don’t want to bring a bunch of people in and then flop. We really spent the year trying to identify for ourselves what will make and create an amazing experience for teachers and students?”
Durham convinced some teachers to stop giving out homework and to listen to students. Suspensions have been slashed by 50 percent and he’s hoping the school becomes a place students want to attend.
One of the math teachers at the school struggled getting kids to turn in their homework and Durham asked the teacher: How does that make you feel? “It makes me sad,” Durham said, quoting the teacher. “Well, have you ever thought about not doing homework anymore,” Durham responded. Left with confusion, the teacher said, “I can’t do it, could I?”
Durham then proceeded to tell the teacher to first identify the deficiencies the students struggle with and to find a different strategy for guiding their quest for knowledge. “We made some shifts. He’s happier; the students are happier.”
Meanwhile, other teachers at New Technology have adopted that no-homework model and staff began to question the status quo: Why do we do what we do? If the answer is because we’ve always done it, that’s not a good enough reason, Durham argues.
Other things have changed at the school as staff and students have questioned past practices. Before graduation, seniors traditionally get treated by staff with a senior pancake breakfast. While well-meaning, the results in the past have meant teachers don’t necessarily get to spend quality time with the students and therefore the purpose of the event – saying goodbye and sharing memories – was not achieved to its fullest potential. “We’re not cooking pancakes this year. We’re going to serve bagels and we’re going to talk with the kids and have mini conversations, then we’ll go to graduation.”
Next year the school district will require a charter renewal for New Tech and to showcase the school’s success, Durham has asked staff to look at data that tells their story. Pulling the last five years of suspension data, they found they cut more than half in one year. “It’s not that the kids stopped doing things, but we just decided to take approach,” Durham said. “We have conversations with parents and students to find how they can grow past those mistakes. The real issue is not when one student makes a mistake, but when they repeatedly make it.”
So, they find a way to learn from their mistakes and Durham said, “I absolutely do find that they are learning.” Sharing an example of this restorative process at work, Durham said earlier in the year, a fight occurred on campus. “It was at end of the day. A former student came on campus to settle some kind of disagreement. There’s video of it. Every single one of our students was trying to mediate and stop it.”
In his fifth year in a school administrator role, Durham said, this is the first time he’s seen video of kids saying, “This isn’t right; somebody go get help. YouTube is full of them with kids saying ‘fight, fight, fight; go, go, go.’ Our kids were saying there’s a better way.”
As the school collected disciplinary referral data, administrators at New Tech saw that out of 13 referrals, eight came from one teacher. Wanting to help that teacher out, the assistant principal visited the classroom and asked everyone there how they felt coming into class. Starting with blame on the teacher, the conversation morphed into students telling their peers that disruptive behavior kept others from learning. Since that intervention last November, there has not been another referral from that teacher who then shared that experience with her peers. The process was duplicated twice in other classrooms. “We’re trying to provide students a voice and give teachers feedback and success is a result. If we can create conditions under which people are happy to come to work, ultimately it will lead to success,” Durham said.
“New Tech has always done and felt this way, but with my experience and with what was already here, we now have a deeper understanding to grow into a happier, healthier school and to have a way for students and staff to resolve conflict,” Durham said.
One night meeting early in the year began with an apology. “(The senior class) has had four principals in four years. I started by saying sorry. Consistency in site leadership is huge for student academic success and I have no intentions of leaving, so I asked them: What do you want out of your senior year? There were a lot of requests (from students and parents) of wanting help getting kids into college.”
Under the guidelines of the charter, the school has autonomy to go to the parents, teachers and staff and collectively decide on the school’s spending priorities. So to address the community’s desire for more college acceptances, New Tech pulled funds together to pay Kaplan SAT Test Prep tuition for about 30 students, resulting in test scores to jump 250 points or more. Some saw the achievement in a larger light – one about bringing equity to students (most the students are minorities). “I wasn’t calling it equity. I just asked parents, what do you want for your kids? I just wanted to help. When I share that story, people are like: ‘do people pay to come to your school? It’s a (Sacramento City Unified School District) dependent charter, a public school. So, if kid wants to come and there’s space, they can come.”
The test prep lasted 10 sessions on Tuesdays and Saturdays and will return next year, and will be offered twice, once in the fall and once in the summer.
On student-led learning
“I have a vision that we will stop teaching students what we think they should learn, but encouraging them to experience. If we as educators can think of simpler and more unique questions to get there, then maybe students will start (leading the learning process). We are a project-based learning school, which is now developed by teachers. What if next year we just have one project that is created by students. I am not a psychologist, but I know I don’t like being told what to do. If I have some say, then I will embrace the work.”
Kenneth’s Story (newtech.scusd.edu/)
I am honored to serve as principal of Sacramento New Tech High School. I am a graduate of the University of California, Davis where I received a B.A. in geology and North Central University, where I received a M.Ed. in educational leadership.
After graduation from UCD, I spent a couple of years working as a professional baseball umpire in Minor League Baseball before beginning an eight-year career as a secondary science teacher who infused technology and PBL principles into the classroom. During my final year in the classroom, I was selected as the Twin Rivers Unified Secondary Teacher of the Year.
Following this honor, I transitioned into administration and spent the last four years working as an assistant principal (two-years at Inderkum High School and two-years in Davis). Along with the Sacramento New Tech team, I look forward to creating an environment where students, staff, parents, and community partners are amazed, passions are ignited, and students graduate equipped to travel any path they choose.
My wife of 16-years, Katie, teaches history at McClatchy and we are blessed with three wonderful girls: Chloe (9), Colby (6), and Kylie (4). I always felt like I knew how to work with kids, but these three little girls have taught me that every child is someone’s entire world and as an educator I must never forget that.