New principal brings world perspective

2011-09-01T00:00:00Z New principal brings world perspectiveJesse Duarte Napa Valley Register
September 01, 2011 12:00 am  • 

During a career spent evaluating schools far (Dubai, Hong Kong, Bangkok) and near (Fairfield, Rohnert Park), St. Helena Elementary School’s new co-administrator has almost literally seen it all when it comes to educational practices.

But Henry Morita said he’s still impressed by the talent and dedication of local teachers.

“Even in the U.S. there are still schools where teachers stay within their four walls and have an attitude of ‘Leave me alone and I’ll do my thing,’” Morita said last Friday morning, as the third day of school was getting under way. “That’s not the case here.”

Morita’s job is analogous to principal, but he’ll report to K-5 Lead Principal Sherri Kelly, who’s stationed at St. Helena Primary School. At the end of the year, the district will look at how the new arrangement is working and possibly reevaluate the need for a co-administrator at the elementary school.

School officials hope the new arrangement will produce a more unified curriculum between the primary and elementary schools, and all the way up through the higher grades. Meanwhile, the primary and elementary schools are starting the year with an entirely new curriculum.

Morita said St. Helena’s teachers have already shown their ability to adapt to the increasingly collaborative system.

“I’m truly impressed with the professionalism of the teachers here, and I’ll support them any way I can,” Morita said.

Evaluating teachers is Morita’s specialty. His travels around the world have taught him that “good teaching practices are good teaching practices,” regardless of language or culture.

Morita was born to Japanese parents who immigrated to California in 1924. When he was a year and a half old, his family was shipped to an internment camp at Tule Lake, where they were forced to stay during World War II.

Morita was too young to remember the experience, but his parents “suffered a lot.” He said his oldest sister vividly recalls spending the night of her high school graduation behind blackout curtains aboard the train to Tule Lake.

Inspired by a fourth-grade teacher in the Sutter County town of Nicolaus, Morita decided to become a teacher. He taught elementary school in West Sacramento while he worked on his master’s degree, then served in administrative roles at various schools in Sacramento and around the Bay Area, including Sonoma State University and his alma mater, Sacramento State University.

In 2008 he was recruited by a London firm to join an international team of educators heading to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to evaluate its school system at the request of the late Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who at the time was the emir of Dubai.

Morita was already accustomed to non-U.S. schools, having traveled around the Pacific Rim while working for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an international accreditation organization. But Dubai still left a strong impression on him.

In Dubai, the wealthy heads of extended families often launch their own schools, which generally base their curriculum on a British model. Students had to observe highly regimented routines.

“When they walked in the hallways, they had to walk on a certain line and be quiet,” Morita recalled. “In the mornings they would have massive assemblies. … They would have morning exercises and patriotic activities with students reading the Koran or a passage by an Arabic scholar. Then they would salute the flag and sing the national anthem.”

In addition to the schools for native Arabic students, there were separate schools catering to the children of French, German, Japanese or Indian expatriates.

Sometimes Morita was disappointed — for example, the family-run schools often hired teachers based on personal connections, not qualifications. At other times, he was impressed, like when an all-girls school organized a health fair with information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.

Overall, the experience left him with a new appreciation for schools like SHES, where well-trained teachers work together and tailor their teaching strategies according to each student’s needs.

Morita said the new K-5 curriculum will encourage more of that “individualized instruction,” foster more collaboration among teachers, and prepare kids to enter a global society.

This year SHES teachers have been split into four teams, with each team made up of one teacher each from grades 3, 4 and 5. The three teachers in each team have their classrooms clustered together. They’ll hold some classes together — reminiscent of the old Multi-Age Program — and confer during break periods. The leaders of each team will work together to keep all four teams on the same page.

As students get to know the other kids in their teacher’s team, the older ones should start to bond with the incoming third-graders and become their “buddies,” helping them navigate life in elementary school, Morita said.

Since students will have the same teacher for two consecutive years, there won’t be lag time at the beginning of each year as teachers get a grasp of each student’s needs and skill sets, said Morita, who saw good results at another school that used similar “looping.”

The new arrangement gives teachers, not just principals, control over how they teach. And that’s just fine with Morita, who promises an open-door policy and a “horizontal” leadership style.

“It’s so important that teachers have a voice in developing their strategies,” he said. “I see it as my role to support those teacher-leaders.”

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