New TOW principal says he will watch and learn

Mike Conlon said he's not about to force his will as the new principal at Top of the World Elementary School.

"In the first year I want to get acclimated to the staff and students, learn from them and what they've been doing," Conlon said Friday. "You never want to be heavy-handed. That is the worst possible thing you can do."

Conlon, 39, takes over Aug. 4 for Ron La Motte, who guided the Laguna Beach school for 13 years. La Motte is leaving to become Concordia University's director of the master's in education program.

But Conlon, principal at Olivewood Elementary School in Lake Forest for the last two years, is not new to the Laguna Beach Unified School District. He and his wife, Kristi, live within district boundaries in Aliso Viejo and have a daughter who will enter fifth grade at Top of the World this fall.

Conlon said he is glad he listened to his wife's suggestion to apply when the job was posted in February.

"A school like this is so special, and to be a part of it, I'm truly excited," Conlon said of the campus, which, as its name suggests, sits atop a hill with a view of Saddleback Mountain.

The state Department of Education named Top of the World a California Distinguished School last spring. The honor recognized 422 elementary schools statewide for their innovative approaches to improving student academic achievement. The Laguna Beach school also earned the honor in 2008.

Conlon, who taught fifth grade for five years in the Long Beach Unified School District and was an assistant principal in the Los Alamitos Unified School District, enters Top of the World at a critical time. Student scores on new statewide assessments will count toward the school's overall performance marks next year. Students practiced taking the tests last year.

Teachers are shifting their lesson plans to align with Common Core, a national educational initiative that places greater emphasis on interpretation, problem-solving and writing in subjects other than English.

Conlon likes the idea of integrating writing exercises across multiple subjects, but said it will take students, teachers and parents time to adjust and will require greater faculty participation.

"It's not just the English department's job to make sure students are good writers," Conlon said.

Another shift in education is technology's influence in the classroom. Students are using devices such as iPads and Chromebooks to research or collaborate on a project.

Laguna Beach Unified will experiment this fall with students bringing their own devices to class.

About one-quarter of district teachers have agreed to participate in the pilot project, Leisa Winston, human resources and communications director, wrote in an email.

"The key is giving teachers time to understand and learn how to [incorporate technology into their lessons]," said Conlon, who comes from a school where each student in grades two through six had an electronic device such as a laptop or iPad.

Conlon said it took seven years of planning to reach that stage so classrooms could handle several students and teachers accessing the wireless network at the same time.

Conlon's strategy in his first year is to build positive working relationships with his colleagues and develop trust with fellow employees, parents and students.

"You can't be an effective leader if you don't have a level of trust among the stakeholders," he said.

School board trustee Betsy Jenkins was impressed with how Conlon fielded parents' questions at a meeting last spring.

"The questions ranged from serious, about instruction, to whether he would eat school lunches," Jenkins said. "He was funny, modest and told his story. I've got a positive feeling about his future."

He is also a proponent of setting realistic expectations.

"First, set a goal," Conlon said, "then identify a teaching strategy to obtain the goal, and evaluate progress throughout the year."

As an example, he added, "Let's say at the beginning of the year 20% of students were proficient in writing. The goal [at the end of the year] could be at least 50% of students scored proficient."

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