Principal Takes a Hands-On Approach
Sharon Millen, the 52-year-old principal of Pearblossom Elementary School, is most likely to be found teaching in a classroom or shooting hoops with the kids instead of making phone calls in her office.
By the end of the year, in fact, she will have taught every grade and each of her school’s 18 classes at least once--a hands-on approach that earned her the title of 1995-96 elementary Administrator of the Year.
"[Millen] has a leadership style that is credited with fostering a feeling of pride, importance and value among all members of her school’s leadership team,” said Tom DeLapp of the Assn. of California School Administrators, the group that chose Millen from among dozens of candidates statewide.
Meaningful as it is to her tiny desert town, Millen’s selection is not the first time the rural Keppel Union School District has been recognized. Supt. Jean Fuller, named Administrator of the Year for 1994-95, was similarly honored for involving parents in decisions and thus boosting morale in the scattered community.
Boasting little more than a handful of gas stations, shops and restaurants not far from the Antelope Valley Freeway, Pearblossom was known mostly as a pit stop for travelers until its seemingly endless Joshua tree landscape was immortalized by artist David Hockney.
The desert dwellers who don’t own or work at one of the local businesses make their way every morning to Los Angeles, San Bernardino or nearby Edwards Air Force Base for a day of work.
But the tie that binds this dusty sprawl and its residents is the 315-square-mile Keppel Union School District, whose 3,000 students attend five elementaries and one middle school. And the ties that bind the school district include Millen and Fuller, both longtime Antelope Valley residents who know many of their students and parents well and share similar approaches.
In fact, Millen says, it was Fuller’s style that attracted her to the district in the first place when she was hired in 1993 from Castaic Middle School.
“It was [her] philosophy of team and her progressive approach to education,” Millen said. “I believe all of us have individual strengths and if all of us bring our parts together, we will be successful with the kids.”
Millen’s own work making parents feel like part of a team impressed the association that honored her, crediting her with creating 11 programs to boost morale among students, parents and teachers.
About 100 parents volunteer weekly in the classrooms and on the playground at Pearblossom Elementary, which has 450 students. There are coffee nights, held in different families’ homes, bingo nights and math nights in which parents are encouraged to tutor their children at the school.
At every gathering, Millen listens to parents’ concerns and often takes action. Meanwhile, she encourages them to keep volunteering.
“Every time she sees you, she’s thanking you for being here,” said Lee Haus, mother of a second- and third-grader who volunteers three days a week in her children’s classes. “If you have any problems you can talk to her.”
At school, Millen’s daily walks through the campus include challenging children to free throws or playing a geography game on maps of the United States painted on the asphalt.
“She has a lot of good activities, like a whistling contest,” said 9-year-old Brent Heying. “She’s funny and she knows a lot of stuff.”
“It’s like a family atmosphere,” said Kathy Behen, a third -and fourth-grade teacher who taught 15 years in a Los Angeles high school before coming to Pearblossom. Her volunteer roster has 18 parents. “I’ve never seen that in any other school.”
Millen is not the only one in the district with a community-oriented approach to administration. Her role model, Fuller, won the award in part for rebuilding a district torn apart by low morale and the threat of a teachers strike.
Fuller joined Keppel Union in 1983 after teaching all levels between third and 12th grade in the San Joaquin and Antelope valleys. She became the district’s superintendent in 1990, at age 39, after holding other administrative posts there.
She was credited by the administrators’ association with involving staff members and parents in helping make decisions. For example, although only board members have legal authority over finances, the community helps manage the district’s $11.5-million budget by giving the board advice on such issues as how much the district should spend on new technology or how much money to give to sports programs.
“All of us get to give input, particularly during tough times,” said Nancy Park, a parent, business owner and member of the budget committee. “I feel great when the decisions don’t get bulldozed through by a couple of administrators.”
The association also credited Fuller with leading the campaign to pass a 1991 bond issue that raised $5 million to build Lake Los Angeles School--replacing an assortment of portable buildings that had housed 400 students.
During the past three years, Fuller also drew support from a divided community to convert three of the district’s schools into year-round schedules, according to the association.
Millen and Fuller’s style of involving the community at large is what sets the tiny desert community apart, say parents and teachers.
“I feel comfortable having my children here,” said Florence Gerardo, a mother of four. “We moved here from Pasadena because we thought it would be better for our children.”