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LB: Many parents may not be familiar with your background, could you please give us a brief bio or introduction of yourself?
Mrs. Bal: I taught at Greystone Elementary School for almost ten years. I have lived in the Almaden community for about 22 years now, both my boys went to Williams, Bret Harte, and Leland, so my older son is 25, my younger son’s almost 21 now, and so we are members of the community. I’m a parent here and I’ve been a teacher in the community, and then after that during Covid, I noticed the pandemic and distanced learning took on our students. So, I decided to enroll in USC, I joined their Rossier School of Education and did my administrator credential over there, and when my son graduated in 2021 from Leland High School, I decided to take a job as an assistant principal and I was placed over here, so we were very happy, so I’ve been an assistant principal of curriculum and instruction for two years and after that, I was asked to apply for the principal position.
LB: Being the Leland High School principal for a few months now, how do you feel and how do you like your job so far?
Mrs. Bal: It is not easy. I think about it every day. I looked at it almost like a practice of my faith and my spirituality. There is nothing better than to help students. The reason I wanted to work with high school is because these students are at the age of struggle the most, and we don’t appreciate it enough. So, two things guided me, one is to remain ethical and make decisions that are good for the students, given whatever my resources or policies are, and secondly to be authentic and transparent. So, I believe good communication is very important to build trust between parents and students and everyone at school. To me, that’s very important.
LB: What are your goals for this school year? What are your priorities?
Mrs. Bal: So, every year different goals. They are mostly tweaked I would say. One of the places where you find school goals and what is called SPSA (Single Plan for Student Achievement). There we set the goals with Department chairs. The second place where we go for goals is the WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges). Every high school is credited by WASC every 6 years. All the goals for the school are set with the teachers, some parents, and some student input. The WASC committees come and visit high schools and they give their feedback. We already have three main goals and 10 sub-goals for Leland that were presented to WASC. They came in March 2023 for a mid-cycle visit. The first three years were over on March 23. After 3 years and 2026, Leland will go through the WASC accreditation process, and that is when a team of people will come and see it. These are the 10 things you said you would do for your school goals. Have you reached them or not? Interestingly, you asked me this question today when we had a staff meeting. The goal of that staff meeting is to look at the 10 goals that we said we're going to achieve and to see what we're doing about it. Under those three broader goals are the 10 sub-goals. It is about academic achievement for students. It is about character development, social-emotional skills development, and mental and physical safety for students.
It’s very comprehensive whereas the SPSA goals are drafted with Department chairs every year, and then we look at the state results, we look at some District assessments, we look at how many kids students are failing classes that are not UC eligible or D’s & F’s, and then based on that we revise our goals, and those goals guide us on the kind of professional development we need to do for teachers. Those goals guide us on how we are going to take the resources we have and allocate them so that we can meet those goals. So, we are constantly revising and then presenting progress on those goals.
LB: Which one do you think we are doing good right now and which do you think we need to improve on?
Mrs. Bal: That's a very good question. We're very strong in instruction and academics. I think we're getting better with the attendance and bringing students back to school. That was one of our weaknesses for two years because of COVID-19. We're about 10.7% chronic absentees and we want to bring it down to under 10.
I think the place that we want to do more is listening to student’s voices. How did the students think about their journey in high school? That is one of our goals, and the second one is social-emotional learning. We have the seven mindsets curriculum refining the school culture, which is a focus. For me personally as a school leader, how can we make the whole environment at Leland such that students feel safe? They feel pride in being here. They can take academic risks. They don't look back and say you know those 4 years in Leland were hard for me, but I thrived in that school. I challenged myself, but I felt safe in the risks that I took by taking certain courses.
LB: If parents are interested in knowing more about school goals, is it published somewhere?
Mrs. Bal: They're not published yet; typically SPSA goals get published on the school website when the district pushes it out, but we should encourage them to come to the School Site Council (SSC) meeting where the SPSA goals are reviewed, and I will discuss it in Principal's coffee. I usually always give updates on school goals when we have concrete information to share.
LB: What are the challenges you face and how do you overcome them?
Mrs. Bal: I think it is just like any leadership position to get 130 adults working here, 1600 students, and about 3,200 parents. I think if you ask me personally the biggest challenge is when people's emotions are very high to just calm people down and say we are truly here to work with you but some policies that cannot be bent. And that is not personal but there are rules and regulations and sometimes that gets very difficult. Also, from a school's perspective, of course, funding is a big thing, money. I wish there was more money. We could do so much more.
LB: What is your expectation for the Leland Bridge Parents Group? How can we better serve you and the school community?
Mrs. Bal: I think I like to have this conversation, to begin with, there is no one magical answer. It's ongoing communication. It's nice to share what the schools want to do with the Bridge Community, explaining to parents’ broader communities as well as where the funding is required and encouraging people to donate the money, I think by high school most families don't donate as much. I want people to understand that teachers need classroom supplies. And then sometimes for parents, it's easier to just write a check, and other times they want to attend an event, or get something, and then donate. So, we just need to also understand from parents why they are not contributing, and what are their worries or concerns about giving money to the school.
LB: How do you advise the students to balance academic workload and physical/mental health for a student, especially 11th and 12th graders who usually don't have PE class?
Mrs. Bal: If you go to the Leland website, you go to course registration and you can find course pathway presentations to students. Counselors go into their classrooms and talk to them about the minimum required courses they should take. They talk to them about extracurricular activities and athletic commitments, and sleep is important. So, the counselors have done a really good job in the last two years in helping students create a course schedule that works for them. Unfortunately, college admissions are so competitive that a lot of the time the students place that burden on themselves.
We used to have at Leland always an in-person AP information night and then we didn’t because of Covid and distance learning. We brought it back this year in February. We also brought a student panel in. Students who've taken AP classes to talk to students and parents, and for them to explain. We've got a mix of students who are very successful in taking lots of AP classes and others struggled and felt they made a big mistake. So those students spoke to the parents and the students at the general meeting first, and then every AP teacher opened their classroom. Every AP course was hosted by a teacher who teaches that course, and they invited students who have taken that class. So, they can answer questions for students and parents. I think being informed is a big part of it.
They must make informed decisions and we as a school are trying to make sure that they know what the course means, what the amount of work that it's going to be required from the course, and then understand that there is no secret formula to get into a college. So, you have to stay healthy yourself even when students sign up for more than three advanced classes.
Every student at Leland who's taking more than three AP classes had to meet an assistant principal for academic advice. And we said are you sure you want to take four or five advanced classes? Sometimes adding just one more class can be the Tipping Point for you to feel anxiety and stress. We had discussions about it, and then we gave them a little form called the supplemental contract. We want them to get it signed by their current teachers from their parents and say, so it's just a process to help them, really think about it before you make your life so challenging. So, we're trying our best.
We are also doing mental health and anxiety workshops the counselors have done. The counselors are also there if students need study skills help. They might feel concerned and they can't go talk to a teacher. They can go to their grade-level counselor and say: I'm struggling in this class, but I don't think I have the confidence to talk to my teacher. Then the counselor will reach out to them. We are trying to do many different things to help our children before they make that crazy busy schedule for themselves, and then once they're in it try to support them also.
For counseling services, you can even do a one-day drop-in, for instance, if you know a student has an AP calculus BC test, and the student is feeling very nervous and anxious. They can go right into the counseling service, and do a check-in for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or 30 minutes, just helping them deal with that anxiety. They can come to the grade-level administrator, or they can go to the grade-level counselor. We just work them over. For our students, the biggest stress is academic stress. It's before testing anxiety and grades.
LB: Let’s say that a student realizes that they're getting in trouble before they take the class so probably in November or February, they realize that they can not handle it anymore. Do you have any remedy that helps improve such a situation?
Mrs. Bal: The reason we do so much beforehand and we keep telling them. “Are you sure this is what you want to do? ” is because, by the 7th or 8th of April, all course registrations are locked. We have to make a master schedule and we hire teachers. In the summer I send teachers for training, especially AP teachers. If we open the doors to the students and allow them to change their minds afterward, it is impossible to start school properly.
We still allow them, and I'm going to talk to you later about it. I want to hear from you how you feel. Even with that, we create the perfect schedule for everybody to the best ability. Then come 3 days of school, we get somewhere around 400 schedule change requests. One of the questions I have is why you have changed your mind. We told you, you have January, February, March, and the beginning of April to think about it. We met you; the counselor met you; we told you to talk to your friends. It’s not sustainable. At that point, I had an unstable school for the first two weeks. We get so constantly moving then that's when people start fighting with us. I wanted a certain class first period, I want this teacher, I want that teacher. We can't do it.
Once the school starts and the schedule is final, the district policy is: if you drop that class, you get an F in that class, and that stays on the transcript. When I meet the students for academic advice, this is what I tell them. You are taking four advanced classes, if your grade starts falling, we are not going to allow you to leave, you will get an F on your transcript. Are you sure you want to do this? Please think about it and they all say yes. So, we try, we really try, we have this conversation, and it says on the paper also. There's a contract.
Sometimes come November, students' anxiety starts going up. And do you know why? They start calculating what grade they'll get by the end of the semester. Because it gets pretty clear by mid-November what their final grade will be. And then the anxiety starts kicking in. And then they come and say I have anxiety please let me drop the course. And we're going to say no you need to follow through with it you can do it. Sometimes the B’s and C’s hurt their college chances.
I always think about how to prevent these mistakes. We have to continuously be better about informing students and parents. So, we host the parent course information night starting in January. And we have the same conversations like this when I meet children, I tell them not to be sure who's going to teach which course. The teachers can change. So, don't say I'm going to take AP because the teachers are easy. But I think most children have become better in their third year now. I'm already noticing a difference coming out of very difficult distance learning. I think prevention, education, and information are important.
After 10th grade, there are other places where you can always take courses at Community College and self-report them. Another thing parents often argue with us is why you cannot put an outside course on your transcript. We can't because you didn't take it here. You need permission and we are not going to let you take courses outside if we offer them here. So, you can go take courses outside, you can enrich your experiences and then you can self-report it to colleges.
LB: You mentioned you have direct meetings with students periodically. How do the students sign up for the event?
Mrs. Bal: I have my first big one on Friday. We start by first meeting with leadership students in the third period. I told them that I don't just want their voice to be heard every time. I want everyone's voice to be heard. So, we talked about a plan, the leadership teacher Mrs. Walsh, and I did a small group in October. Now we're going to send a slip to every teacher and the teacher is going to pick one student and send it. But I'm hoping to do it once a month and the student can tell the teacher that they're interested in going. That will have 50 to 70 students, and it will be during Friday's tutorial this time. This is not going to be a place where students complain. I think it is an opportunity to train.
I have student children and my boys have been teenagers. We want to coach them on how to have respectful conversations with adults. And not to always just approach adults with complaints, but how to have a conversation back and forth. I feel this is an opportunity for them like we're talking. They get to talk to me, come to know me better, and come to know the School better. The question that I'll be asking this group on Friday is what is it about your journey in high school that I as a principal or other adults at school do not understand? I want them to talk to me about it.
LB: For people, a lot of parents who cannot attend the principal’s coffee, is there a way they can catch up on information? Where did they get updates?
Mrs. Bal: My suggestion is if any of you attended to tell me which I presented to the Principal’s Coffee that you think other parents might be interested in. I can start including a little bit more in my principles update. I don’t want to put it slides in because this always changes. But if somebody's attending it and thinks this information is good, feel free to share it.