November 8, 2020 | Zoe McKay
I interviewed Aragon’s new principal, Valerie Arbizu. She has been an administrator in the San Mateo Union High School District since 2012, and has worked 19 years in education, working exclusively in high schools. She spoke on how Aragon High School is handling the new virtual school year, and what plans there are for moving forward.
ZM: Hi Ms. Arbizu! Can you tell me about yourself? What’s your work background? What was your job before this?
VA: I started my teaching career in East Side San Jose, where I was a founding member of the faculty at Evergreen Valley High School. I taught English at EVHS for seven years, during which time I was also the English Department Chair, WASC Coordinator, and Professional Development Coordinator. I loved every minute of working at Evergreen Valley, and that time was acknowledged by being named District Teacher of the Year in 2009; that same year, I completed my MA in Educational Leadership and my Administrative Credential, and accepted a position at Saratoga High School as an English Teacher in a much smaller school.
After one year in the classroom at Saratoga HS, the budget was cut a bit and I needed to figure out my next professional move. In the end, my teaching position was saved, but I had already been offered and accepted a position at Los Gatos High School as an Assistant Principal for the 2010-11 school year. That was a wild experience: the same year I accepted the position at LGHS my husband accepted a position with Salesforce in San Francisco, so we moved from Morgan Hill to San Mateo, effectively uprooting our young son at the same time. So - we all had new jobs, my son and I were at new schools, and we lived in a new place where we really didn't know anyone! But we're a tight family, so it all turned out well.
I made the commute from San Mateo to Los Gatos for two years: that was a difficult balance, as I wanted to be at school for all of the student events, but also wanted to be home more with my husband and son. That was the year that I applied for a position at Mills High School and was offered the opportunity to come into the San Mateo Union High School District. That was in 2012-13, and I've been an administrator in this district ever since!
ZM: How did you become the principal of Aragon?
VA: “The short answer is that I applied for the position and got lucky! The real answer is a bit more nuanced. Being a high school administrator requires a broad knowledge base AND the right personality fit for the school. With my ten years of experience as an Assistant Principal, I have been responsible for nearly every department on campus at some point during my career.
Over the years, I found my way onto a number of district committees, focused on everything from technology to students services and special education to data and assessment. I like working with others to create more efficient systems that support students and teachers well. This work connected me to a number of people across the district, which helped to establish my reputation as a knowledgeable and pragmatic administrator - with a sense of humor, of course! It also allowed me the time and space to learn from a wide variety of teachers and administrators from across this district.
Finally, I am so thankful for the Principals I have had a chance to work with and learn from in this district. Over the years, I was fortunate to learn from Dr. Patricia Kurtz, the previous Principal at AHS, and all of the other SMUHSD District Administrators, Principals, Assistant Principals who have been a part of this district over the past eight years.”
ZM: What is your goal as principal?
VA: Right now, my goal is to get to know the school, the staff, the students, and the community - and for them to get to know me. Along with that, my focus this year will be to support staff and students as we work through the health requirements and distance learning protocols. In many ways, it feels as though we are building a new virtual academy on top of a traditional high school, and that's difficult. I want to make sure that we are working well with our students and with each other, providing our surrounding community with good information and support, and finding balance and humor in the midst of it all.
Teaching (and working in a school) is very human work. Educators thrive on working in person with students - the shift to a distance learning model has had a dramatic effect not only on the way in which we deliver instruction to our students, but also on the collective psyche of the faculty and staff that call Aragon their professional home. We are missing our kids, and it's my job to help our teachers and students find creative ways to maintain the connections that make schools great.
ZM: What are your concerns for this year?
VA: My biggest concerns this year are supporting our teachers in how they provide instruction to students - and how they are feeling when the students aren't physically in the room with them. There is no playbook for leading a comprehensive high school through a pandemic, so we will need to feel this out together.
Of course, this health crisis is not the only thing we are working through. It's incredibly important that we also take time to be introspective about how we work with and serve ALL students in our community. As educators, we have talked for years about equity gaps and best practices to support students who are not making the same academic strides as their peers. There has been significant fallout from Covid crisis in the Aragon community - we have students whose parents are dealing with job loss and households that are dealing with food instability, not to mention the very obvious tech divide we are seeing on a class-by-class basis in our current Zoom environment.
ZM: What are you confident about this year?
VA: Even with all of the hurdles we have crossed to get the school year up and running - and throwing a brand new Principal into the mix! - there are amazing things happening on and around this campus that inspire confidence. With that said, I am confident in our teachers' abilities to shift their instructional strategies and provide high levels of education to our students, the emotional and financial support of our community to assist teachers in realizing new ways to support student learning needs, and in the persistence I see in our students: they want to come to school and they want to learn. If we can keep all of those pieces in place, we will be in good shape as a learning community this year.
I am also confident in our ability to see what's happening in the world around us and shift accordingly. Our BIPOC students, faculty, staff, and community members are loudly voicing (and rightfully so) a call to action to make our schools better for ALL students. This disruption in 'school as usual' provides us with a unique opportunity to take a hard look at our program, keep the things that work for all students, and identify and remove institutional barriers.
ZM: How is Aragon dealing with tech issues?
VA: We are lucky to have a great tech team on campus, led by Assistant Principal Nicole Elenz-Martin and Instructional Technology Coordinator (and teacher!) Vince Bravo. We have enough chromebooks on campus to loan one out to every student, and our district has begun to procure hotspots for students with unstable internet connections. We currently have a variety of ways for students to connect to tech support, including a phone line, text line, Zoom Help Desk, and District Help Desk, each of which are manned during the school day with some evening hours support at the district office. We were also fortunate to have made the switch from School Loop to Canvas a few years ago - while the change was challenging at the time, we are now reaping the rewards of that decision as we are able to support students online with other applications that integrate well with Canvas.
ZM: How have the first weeks gone?
VA: So much better than expected! We had 98% of our students connected to their classes on the first day! We are still working through the usual business of balancing course loads and honoring shifting course requests for students, but so much of that work was completed prior to day one by our Counseling Department and Assistant Principal Lisa Nagendran that most students received their correct schedules on the first day of school. That is such difficult work in a 'regular' year that I cannot emphasize enough how well this went this year - even with the added complications of students taking some courses at Aragon, supplemented with courses at CSM and through our district Independent Study program.
ZM: What are the plans for returning to school?
VA: I think it's safe to say that we are literally taking this one day at a time. We continue to work with the San Mateo County Health Office for guidelines, and we are in the midst of creating our Spring 2021 District Reopening Plan. This is a phased approach to bringing students and teachers back to campus in a safe way beginning in January - if health conditions allow. We are currently working with a small group of students on campus in a learning pod and athletics are getting ready to get up and running in December - again, as health conditions allow. It's a constantly shifting landscape.
ZM: Is there anything you want to share that you think the community/students/parents should know?
VA: The teachers and staff members that serve this community are AMAZING - dedicated, professional, tireless. Much of the work we are doing is new to us and we are doing the best we can; with that said, it is important to get feedback from the community about what's working and what's not. I expect to get a survey out to families after Back to School Night (scheduled for September 10th) to gain their feedback. It's also important to note that, while we are using every method of communication available to get information to students, parents, and community members, communication seems to take longer in a distance learning environment. Please be patient with us as we work through the mountains of email that come our way - we will answer each and every one of them as soon as we can.
ZM: What do you and the school need from the community?
VA: Our students need support in finding healthy outlets: exercise and socialization. Please support your students and the students in your neighborhoods with healthy, socially distanced ways to connect with each other and stay active. Additionally, we could use additional financial and volunteer supports to get more hands-on materials to our students. We know that students can't learn from a computer alone - they need the opportunity to complete scientific observations in their own homes and to mold their own clay for ceramics classes. The Aragon Excellence Fund has been a HUGE contributor to these academic needs. With their help, we were able to distribute packs of materials for Biology, Chemistry, AP Biology, and Biotechnology, along with materials packs for all levels of Art and Ceramics students, and additional learning packs in most of our departments. But the compilation and distribution of these materials in mid-August was just the beginning - with your help, we would like to continue to provide all of our students with the tangible materials that are necessary for a well-rounded education. If you are interested in contributing to these efforts, please reach out to the Aragon Excellence Fund at aragonfund.org.