Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 21, 2010

New Gunn principal has a passion for history

Katya Villalobos has worked at Gunn or Paly since 1995, save for one year

by Chris Kenrick

Though born in El Salvador and educated at an all-girls Catholic high school, Katya Villalobos is steeped in the ways of Palo Alto public schools.

Villalobos, who takes over as principal of Gunn High School July 1, came to town as a student-teacher in 1995 and — save for one year — has worked at Gunn or Palo Alto High School ever since.

She's well-known to many local students and parents for her outsized passion for history and an enthusiasm for the high school years.

"I love teenagers — they're just awesome," Villalobos said expansively in a recent interview at Gunn, where she is finishing a two-year run as a history and social-studies teacher.

"I know some people are scared off by them, but they keep me honest for sure, energized and on my toes.

"One of my goals, regardless of where I am in life, is to create a sense of community and a culture where teachers and students can shine."

Among Villalobos' earliest memories is boarding a Pan Am jet in San Salvador and heading for California. She was 4 years old.

"I remember my mom crying because she was leaving her family. But my brother and I were having fun because we were on a plane," she said.

Jose Villalobos, an accountant and mechanic in El Salvador, had planned to emigrate to the United States to work a few years before returning home, she said.

"My mom said, 'I don't want to be a single mother — we want to come there too.' We were little, and my mom worried about us not being with our dad.

"My dad got the money together and paid for the airline tickets."

The family settled in San Francisco, thrived — and stayed put.

Carmen Villalobos, a nurse in El Salvador, obtained California credentials and worked at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, from which she is retired. Her father retired as a mechanic from the Yellow Cab Co. in San Francisco.

Villalobos was sent to Catholic schools in the city and developed an early love of history.

"It started with my dad at the dinner table," she said. "He'd always want us to talk about what was going on in the world.

"Ancient Greece in sixth-grade really captured me. I was fascinated that we could read speeches people wrote thousands of years ago — that they were translated and you can still read them today.

"It's that idea that we're all links in a chain. It doesn't make us any less or better, but we're attached to all the people who came before us."

Villalobos attributes what she calls her "academic fearlessness" to a high school education at the all-girls Mercy Burlingame.

"That's where I think my mouth grew," she said.

"I didn't really grasp it at the time, but there was a plan or a vision the Sisters of Mercy had that they were there to teach young women to be leaders.

"They pushed you, in a good way, to be who you are."

Villalobos went to the University of California, Los Angeles, with the idea of a career in academia. Along the way — while teaching on the side at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts — she got bitten by the teaching bug.

She came to Paly as a student-teacher while obtaining a credential at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. After teaching history for six years, she became Assistant Principal for Guidance and Instruction, handling the master schedule, staffing and curriculum for the next five years.

"I had many good mentors in the district and at the school," she said, mentioning former Paly principals Sandra Pearson, Marilyn Cook and Scott Laurence.

A one-year stint as principal of Capuchino High School in San Bruno ended with a medical leave, and Villalobos returned to Palo Alto — Gunn this time — as a history teacher in 2008.

"I know Palo Alto students, and I know the curriculum," Villalobos told Gunn's student newspaper, The Oracle, at the time.

Villalobos enjoys travel and has returned often to her home country, even during El Salvador's civil war of the 1980s.

Relatives recently bought a remote, 6-acre orange grove there, where she plans to spend time this summer.

"It's just us and nothing. You get to talk to people, sleep and enjoy life — talk about organic eating and living."

She's passionate about what she calls her "mini-tribe": her parents, brother, sister-in-law and three nieces, who all live close together in San Bruno.

She would like to extend that sense of community to the school setting.

"I know it's a cliché, but the heart (of a school) is always the classroom," she said.

"Kids do listen, and when they see a teacher show a sense of passion for the subject they're like magnets. The kids say, 'Yeah, I can do that.'"

Villalobos believes that kind of passionate teaching and community building can help heal the Gunn campus following four student suicides that occurred between May and October of last year.

She recalls two student suicides in 2002 and 2003 while she was at Paly.

"A parent or a school is never to bury a child, a student, a young adult. That's not the natural order of things. Unfortunately it does happen and it hits us really hard and it has reverberations throughout the district and the town.

"That's why relationship-building between teachers and students is so critical," she said.

"Both schools have worked really hard to really connect with their students, trying to get to know them.

"Next to academics, my primary job is safety and I take it seriously.

"I'm mom to 2,000 kids. And that doesn't scare me — I love it."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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