School officials announced Monday that Berkeley High Vice Principal Michele Patterson will be the new principal of Willard Middle School next year, replacing retiring Principal Gail Hojo.
Patterson said Wednesday that she was “ecstatic” with her appointment to Willard. She’s spent much of the week visiting the school, getting to know its staff and doing a little eavesdropping on its students.
“It’s kind of fun because they don’t know who I am,” she said.
Patterson came to Berkeley High from southern California in January 1999 to help oversee the creation of Village 9, a “school within a school” intended to ease the transition into high school for Berkeley High freshman.
Patterson’s background is in middle schools, however, and she came to Berkeley with the understanding that she would have an opportunity to move back into middle schools should an administrative position open up.
Before she got to Berkeley High, Patterson, 38, had accumulated 14 years of experience in middle schools, working as an English and history teacher and then as an administrator at the Fontana Unified School District in San Bernardino County.
She said she prefers working in middle schools because, more than just teaching required subjects, middle school teachers must often play a critical role in students’ emotional development.
“Middle school students are at the stage in their lives where they’re really struggling with who they are,” Patterson said. She said middle school teachers must work closely together, creating a family-like environment where students will feel welcome and can get the attention they need.
“(Middle school) students so badly need something to identify with,” Patterson added. If they don’t feel a sense of belonging in the middle school community, it becomes an obstacle to their academic and social development, she said.
Patterson said her top priorities at Willard will be student safety, student achievement and staff morale.
Safety and morale have been issues of particular concern at Willard, particularly after an incident earlier this year where seven Willard boys were arrested in connection with the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl, according to a number of people close to the campus.
“That was tough to go through,” said Willard Vice Principal Gene Nakamura. “When you get battered by the news and the media it’s pretty tough, because it’s a slap at your confidence.”
Nakamura, who was named the new head of the district’s Student Services Offices Monday and will be leaving Willard after 22 years as a teacher and administrator at the school, said another challenge for Patterson will be dealing with chronic understaffing at the school.
“What’s happening in the school district is they’re taking positions away and then the people who are left are expected to pick it up,” Nakamura said.
Nakamura said he himself has taken on the work load of the school’s Resource Specialist, who moved up to the district’s central office in the middle of the year and was not replaced.
Even before Willard lost one of its three on-campus safety personnel in the most recent round of school district budget cuts, the school had gone a year and a half without the benefit of a school resource officer from the Berkeley police department, Nakamura added. (Both Longfellow and King middle schools have Resource Officers assigned to them.)
The absence of the officer “makes a big difference,” Nakamura said, “not only in prevention (of violence) but also in counseling.”
Unlike the high school, Willard has no counseling staff on campus to help students work through emotional problems, a fact Patterson said the school district may need to rethink in the years ahead.
As for the other staff shortages, Patterson said: “I think the whole district is feeling the cuts.”
Overworked or not, Berkeley PTA Council President Mark Coplan, whose son will enter Willard in the fall, said Patterson should move to make the school more responsive to the needs of parents and others in the community. Coplan said he himself has experienced the frustration of having repeated calls to the school go unanswered, a complaint echoed by other Willard parents this year.
“(Patterson) could really move to change the image (of Willard) by being responsive and available to the community,” Coplan said.
Patterson said her experience working at Berkeley High for the last 18 months puts her in a unique position to continue working on the often problematic transition students experience moving from middle school to high school.
“Now I completely understand where I’m sending my Willard eighth graders” and how they need to be prepared, Patterson said.
With Village 9, the school within the school at Berkeley High, Patterson helped implement a number of programs to help eighth graders become successful ninth graders. To give middle schoolers and their parents a better idea of what to expect at Berkeley High, Village 9 orchestrated “Eighth grade visitations” to the school and “parent information nights” at the middle schools.
Once at Berkeley High, Village 9 provides freshman an array of tutoring, mentoring, peer support and after-school programs to give them added social, emotional and academic support.
But the success of these efforts, said Patterson, hinges on the high school being able to identify students at risk and hook them up with the support services they need from their very first day on campus. To often, Patterson said, the poor flow of information between the high school and middle schools impedes this process.
“We need very close communication (between middle schools and the high school),” Patterson said. “We can make that transition much smoother.”