Austin: Laguna prepared me for the next step

When Laguna Beach High School Principal Don Austin cheerfully congratulated staff at the June 14 school board meeting, no one knew it would be his last.

He announced his resignation two days later. Monday is his last day after five years in the position.

Pending Huntington Beach Union High School District's board approval, Austin will start as assistant superintendent of educational services July 1.

Late last week, Laguna's district announced that Thurston Middle School Principal Joanne Culverhouse will take Austin's place.

When Austin came to Laguna in 2006, he said being principal at the high school was a stark contrast to being principal at La Sierra High School in Riverside. La Sierra is larger than Laguna's four school sites combined.

"I came with the misconception that it would be easier here," he said. "Truly, it was exponentially more complex."

He came into a district with strong opinions, he said, and many were divided on the departure of the previous principal, Nancy Blade.

A few months before he started, protesters, who felt Blade was forced out, rallied at the district offices to support her.

"They'll replace her but not with anyone as good," physics teacher Jen Merritt said in March 2006.

From the start, Austin made it a priority to get the administration, staff and community on the same page, he said.

With an open-door policy, Austin encouraged students and staff to have a conversation. He also wanted people to trust that he would take issues seriously.

"If someone walks in your office, they don't want to be redirected to someone else, they want you to know the answer," he said.

Now Austin is thinking about what he will leave behind.

From the beginning, college-readiness has been a priority, but so is finding the right fit for higher education.

When he came in, he felt students were pressured to go to some of the best schools in the nation but not always for the right reasons.

At last year's graduation, he emphasized that students should choose schools that feel right, and not for the Ivy League emblem plastered on a sweatshirt.

"Every discussion when I first got here had to do with getting into the most rigorous competitive colleges in the country," he said. "The bar was set that if a student didn't get to an Ivy or a top UC, that the school was failing.

"I think students are feeling better about their choices whether its community college, public, private or going onto a career. But also more kids are getting into competitive colleges than ever before."

He has watched the teachers evolve, he said, and take on more responsibilities.

As he gears up for his last day, Austin believes Laguna prepared him for the next step in his career.

"I clearly think if you can be successful at LBHS in particular, you can be successful anywhere," he said.

As for Culverhouse, Austin described her as a perfect fit for the job.

"I have plenty of advice for her, probably more than she wants," he said with a laugh. "I have all the confidence in the world that she'll be an outstanding principal at LBHS."

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