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Tightrope Walker: New Grossmont Principal Dan Barnes Confronts Issues

Ex-football star tackles attendance boundary controversy and possible charter school move.

If Dan Barnes has learned anything in his 43 years of life, it’s expect the unexpected.

Now in his fifth month as principal of Grossmont High School, Barnes has seen his share of surprises. He enrolled at the Air Force Academy to play football but soon left for San Diego State. He returned to teach at his alma mater, Granite Hills High School, only to switch to Grossmont at the behest of Theresa Kemper, the school’s former principal.

But the biggest twist may be ahead.

Grossmont could become a charter high school—if teachers “exploring the option” have their way.

Long before Wednesday’s vote of a still-unknown number of Grossmont teachers to launch a study of charter schools, Barnes answered questions about his new job and touched on the differences between rival Helix Charter High School and Grossmont.

“I hate to sound argumentative, but I could go either way” on charter status, Barnes said in an office interview not long after succeeding Kemper as principal.

“But the system I’ve grown up with, that my kids attend—there are great things in public education ‘as is.’  I think you can find issues with charter schools just as with the older model.”

Although charter schools control their own budgets and have their own school boards, Barnes said: “I think we have a voice in our board” with the Grossmont Union High School District.

One of the triggers of the charter study at Grossmont was board approval of new attendance boundaries.

In an email exchange last month, Barnes said he had received “a variety of contacts from people in my neighborhood, people who have students in our school, and people who have students that will be attending GUHSD schools in the fall,” regarding new boundaries.

He’s acutely aware of neighborhood sentiment because he lives a block away from La Mesa in the Fletcher Hills area of El Cajon, slated to send students to West Hills High School in Santee.

Under enrollment policies announced with the plan’s adoption, current students and Foothiller siblings would continue to attend the Murray Drive school that straddles the La Mesa-El Cajon border.

Barnes has two sons attending Grossmont, in fact—a freshman and a sophomore. In the wings are a sixth-grade daughter, 11, and a 10-year-old son.

When he was elevated from vice principal in mid-October, Barnes said he asked his older sons whether they were OK with attending a school where he was the principal. He gave them the option of transferring. They said no.

“They’d much rather be Foothillers than anything else,” he said. 

When he asks his sons how they are doing with him as principal, they say: “We’re good, Dad,” Barnes recalled. “They’re good kids, well-respected on their own. I don’t go out and check on them every day.”

Enrollment at Grossmont is 2,538, Barnes said last month, and projected population under the new boundaries is 2,254. 

“That said, there may or may not be an increase in the projected number due to the choice enrollment process offered by the district for next school year,” Barnes said.  “That choice enrollment number is variable.”

Will any GHS programs be affected—or even cut or dropped—as a result of new school size?

Barnes replied:  “I have no plans to cut or drop any of our programs. As enrollment potentially goes down, we look at each department, course and program on campus and consider our options.  At this point, our programs may decrease in size, but we are not cutting any programs.”

But a touchier issue is whether Grossmont’s key academic measures—called API and CST—would decline in the wake of attendance changes.

That concern has been raised by several people, including Gregory Kerrebrock, leader of a petition drive to rescind the attendance boundaries.

According to Kerrebrock, “On paper the district has proposed moving a fairly large number of students with a history of high achievement out of Grossmont. The student base that is being brought into Grossmont does not bring with it the same academic levels.”

Kerrebrock, a La Mesan with children in middle school, called Grossmont “a clear loser in the realignment that is being proposed.”

As much as Monte Vista was a beneficiary, he said via email, “I am sure there is a great level of dismay and frustration among the educators at Grossmont and this [charter study] type of reaction that can develop when you intentionally leave people out of a very important process.”
 
He said reaction of parents to the idea of Grossmont becoming a charter is mixed, and one parent sent him this note:

This is ALL about the money, so I can’t imagine a good outcome between the district and GHS. Schools are funded by the state based on attendance, so this will drain money from the district. Schools going charter almost never has anything to do with education; it has to do with financing (at least in my opinion) and control.

If this has really happened and the school does, in fact, pursue charter status, I would guess that there will be a tremendous fight. As you have all seen, the board and the district basically act as if Helix and Steele [Canyon Charter High School] don’t exist. There is a precedent for how this will turn out, so I’m not optimistic that the district will let this go quietly.
 

Barnes was asked whether he thought Grossmont test scores might drop in the wake of new attendance boundaries.

“Any change in a school attendance, programs, funding, curriculum, etc. could affect API and CST results,” he said.  “We will continue to offer a solid academic program to all students at GHS no matter where they live, with a plan to continue to increase our API and CST results.”

If Barnes has to deal with uncertainty over charter status, it won’t be the first time he’s had to change gears.

At Granite Hills High in the mid-1980s, Barnes was a star lineman in football—co-MVP in the Grossmont League, in fact, at 6-feet-2, 245 pounds.

He dreamed of playing for Stanford, but he ended up committing to the Air Force Academy at age 17 after being recruited by that Colorado Springs school along with Utah, Utah State, Colorado State and Long Beach State.

Rep. Duncan L. Hunter—the current congressman’s father—signed Barnes’ letter of recommendation to the Air Force Academy. But Barnes’ grandfather, a former captain in the Navy, warned about the hardships of military life.

And when Barnes got to the academy, he attended boot camp and recalled his reaction: “What on earth am I thinking?”

He withdrew and returned to San Diego.

He later would graduate from San Diego State and earn a teaching credential from Christian Heritage College and a master’s degree and educational administration credential from National University.

He followed his parents into education—his mother spending 36 years at Santana and Granite Hills and his father working 35 years in the San Diego Unified school system.

His first jobs in the district were as a campus supervisor at Granite Hills and Valhalla high schools. His teaching career began at Granite Hills as a U.S. history and geography teacher, and he also coached football and girls basketball.  He even coached one of his younger brothers at Granite Hills.

Nine years ago, at the behest of Kemper, he joined her at Grossmont as an assistant principal.

“It was a big change,” he said. “I was at the school [Granite Hills] where I was a former student, coach, teacher. I had planned on staying there as long as I could.”

But when Kemper—now an assistant superintendent in the Grossmont district—asked Barnes to move to Grossmont, he said yes, “absolutely.”

“As a former history teacher, I love this place—and all that it offers these kids,” he said of the oldest school in the district. “Modern school, modern curriculum, modern sports. … Pretty neat.”

But powers beyond his control remain a challenge, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act that dictates academic goals for public schools.

“All of the money that’s spent on testing and accountability and so many other things seems such a wasted expense,” Barnes said last year.

Of NCLB, he said: “It’s a big piece of our job. I’d like to see it modified. It’s a good thing—it drives us where we should go and what our kids should learn—but sometimes as a principal it seems to be our only focus.”

He noted other values of school culture.

“There are so many great things going on on campus—life skills, social skills, athletic skills,” he said. “That can’t be quantified.”

Some parts of NCLB are good, he said, “but like most pieces of legislation, it got bigger and bigger and out of control by the time it was voted on.”

Barnes said he would like to see the “achievement gap” decreased between various student demographics while preserving its culture and traditions.

“They love this place,” he said of the student body. “They love Grossmont. It’s not just one set of students. It’s most students. They’re happy to be here.”

As far as changes in the school, Barnes said: “Data is going to drive what we’re doing. Teachers are going to continue to lead—with a vision that we put out.”

What kind of mark would he like to leave at Grossmont?

“Continue with what we have going,” he said during an office interview shortly after his appointment. “Teacher leaders need to lead. Parent [and] community involvement has got to be a priority at the school.”

And just as Theresa Kemper presided over Grossmont’s 90th anniversary celebration in October 2010, would Barnes like to do the same for the centennial in 2020?

“We’ll shoot for the 95th,” he said with a smile. “Absolutely. I’d love to be here. If not, I’m coming back for the 100th.”

Molly Nowak February 06, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Dan Barnes was a great guy back in high school and he appears to be a great guy now. I wish him and Grossmont the best. I have my second child going through Steele Canyon and couldn't be happier. Charter schools are amazing. Being 'ignored' by the district is fine! Our school is run by the school, not a group of out of touch, cookie cutter politicians. Our test scores are incredible, higher than any 'normal' high school in east county. Our kids love the community that is Steele Canyon High. Our classes have an average of 30 kids, not the 45 you see at Grossmont and other 'normal' schools in the district. Our sports program is fabulous, bringing home 19 CIF banners last year. People need to understand that a charter school in this era is nothing like the charter schools of 40 years ago. Anyone willing to fight a school on becoming a charter is an idiot. Plain and simple. Steele Canyon and Helix are fabulous schools that are the future. Grossmont would be wise to follow their path.

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