New Paly principal believes in perseverance | May 14, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 14, 2010

New Paly principal believes in perseverance

Phil Winston wants to learn school's traditions 'for my own well-being'

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto High School's next principal, 33-year-old Phil Winston, has "no perfect plan" for tackling the job.

Winston, a former special-education teacher and current assistant principal at Gunn High School, said he intends to begin his Paly tenure by getting to know the school community.

"I need to get to know people, and I'd ask the same of the community," Winston said in a recent interview with the Weekly.

"There's tremendous tradition at Paly, and I need to understand that for my own well-being.

"My goal is to understand the community, keep it student-centered and maintain the focus that's been achieved over the years."

In his small, tidy office at Gunn, Winston keeps a shelf full of administrative manuals, a whiteboard full of unintelligible scrawls, and a bulletin board containing a color photo from a Milpitas newspaper featuring his two children, Conner, 7, and Meghan, 3, at play.

Adjacent is a tacked-up quotation from 18th century English Parliamentarian and abolitionist Thomas Foxwell Buxton: "With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable."

Talent aside, his perseverance stands out.

Growing up in Milpitas, he worked summers as a gardener and custodian through a city program and graduated from Milpitas High School.

With a four-year college financially out of reach, Winston attended Mission College, working as he studied. He transferred to California State University at Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), where he earned a degree in psychology.

He took classes in marriage and family therapy — an interest at the time — but switched to teaching as he approached graduation.

"I'd always had a real desire and passion for working with people, particularly young adults," he said.

"It wasn't until the end of college when I realized the power of a teacher, and that's when I decided I was going to try to do that."

Winston said he was drawn to special education after witnessing "the power of some good interventions" on a person close to him.

He found a program at Santa Clara University that allowed him to do supervised, paid internships while earning a teaching credential. He did his student teaching in his hometown of Milpitas.

"I worked to pay my way through school, and it changes the value of education when you're able to do that," he said.

"You value the product, and the product is the work you put into it.

"I went into junior college (Mission) very focused, with my mind set on where I was going to go. I took advantage of the great price that was there, and got in and out as quickly as I could."

Winston taught special education for six years in Milpitas and for a year at JLS Middle School.

"A piece of my heart" always will remain in special ed, he said.

But after just a year in Palo Alto, Winston was promoted to become dean of students at Gunn.

"I thought it was a perfect opportunity for my skill set, an opportunity to deal with a larger group of students with a more diverse base," he said of his move into administration.

Asked to elaborate on his skill set, Winston said, "I'm a great listener, a good problem solver and I enjoy shared decision-making. And I do a good job of keeping things student-centered."

"Student-centered" means "continuing to process decisions and how the school functions based on what is best for our students in all areas — academics, student life, culture, social, emotional, guidance, support and extracurricular activities," he said.

"It also means supporting teachers and support staff in every way so they can continue to do exceptional work on our students' behalf."

Winston declined to comment on the "egg wars," an October 2009 egg fight among Paly students that occurred on the Gunn campus, damaging athletic facilities there.

In response, Paly Principal Jacquie McEvoy issued suspensions, many of which later were rescinded. The incident led to some parents openly protesting McEvoy's discipline style. It was one of several situations that created a prickly relationship with students and faculty, although she is credited with spearheading an effective campus-planning process for future improvements. She had strong defenders as well as critics among parents.

McEvoy announced in January she would resign June 30, "with a bittersweet heart," she said in a message to the school community.

Winston did not answer directly when asked about unconfirmed reports on the Town Square forum that he has confiscated student cell phones to view call records.

"I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that everything we do is based on student health and safety," he said. "If it has to do with health and safety then we will do that.

"Sometimes what students see as an invasion of their privacy is really in their best interests."

Winston typically begins his days with a jog around his neighborhood in Milpitas, where he lives with his wife, Anna, a third-grade teacher in the Milpitas school district, and their two children.

The couple met as juniors in a Milpitas High School Spanish class that, coincidentally, was taught by Janet Urbina — now a teacher at Paly.

Winston's mother-in-law, Marsha Grilli, currently chairs the board of the Milpitas Unified School District.

Having worked closely at Gunn with Gunn's newly named principal, Katya Villalobos, Winston said he hopes for more collaboration between the two high schools in the future.

"We're a unified school district, and this is a wonderful time in the history of Palo Alto to enhance our collaborative work," he said.

"Katya is easy to work with and I think we're going to do good work for both schools. I'm not exactly sure how or why, but it's exciting."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at


Posted by Jessica, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 14, 2010 at 10:20 am

I am very glad he will be taking the chance to get to know the school's students and traditions before making any impulsive decisions or changes. Please stay true to your word.

Posted by A Noun Ea Mus, a resident of Professorville
on May 14, 2010 at 11:12 am

Good luck Phil!

He looks like a cross between a young Harvey Keitel and Christian Slater!

Anyone else see this in the photo?


Posted by James Hoosac, a resident of another community
on May 17, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Excuse me for being a snob. But this is ridiculous. A 33-year old CalState Hayward grad for Paly principal? Give me a break. What kind of role model we are setting up here? How can Mr. Winston exert any authority over the students and parents?

While I am sure Mr. Winston did a fantastic job at Gunn, I don't think he is qualified to be a Paly principal at this time. It is very troubling that Palo Alo School District cannot find any better candidate for this incredibly important position of the community.

I urge students and parents rise up and talk to the board to reconsider this appointment.

Posted by NoExcuse, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 17, 2010 at 5:27 pm

"Excuse me for being a snob." There is no excuse.

Your problem with the guy is that he didn't go to an Ivy or Stanford. You should be concerned about his experience, not whether he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

I grant you that it might be hard to exert authority over students if their parents talk the way you do.

Posted by James Hoosac, a resident of another community
on May 17, 2010 at 7:13 pm

NoExcuse, you imply those who go to Ivy or Stanford must have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. What kind of nonsense is that?

Paly is a prestigious public high school. It stands for the highest quality of public education in the nation. As such it deserves a principal that matches the statue and expectations.

Of course you don't have to be an Ivy grad to be the Paly principal. But he or she must have demonstrated profound experience, intellect and achievements in the business of high school education and administration to qualify.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Mom, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 17, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Give the man a chance. While I agree Hayward is not impressive, perhaps his administrative skills are impressive and if parents teach their children as they should, students should respect authority anyway.

I and many are unimpressed with our superintendent Skelly, a Harvard undergrad and UCB graduate. He does not have adequate communication skills nor leadership skills. You should have seen how he was bullied at the Everyday Math meetings! He is certainly nice and approachable, but not effective.

Posted by James Hoosac, a resident of another community
on May 17, 2010 at 10:07 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by NoExcuse, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 17, 2010 at 10:16 pm

"NoExcuse, you imply those who go to Ivy or Stanford must have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth."

You are out of contact if you think those schools admit students based on merit.

"Paly is a prestigious public high school." In the fevered vision of some PA parents, yes.

"It stands for the highest quality of public education in the nation." Purest nonsense. Many student do get high scores, though.

"As such it deserves a principal that matches the statue and expectations." More of your status obsession.

"But he or she must have demonstrated profound experience, intellect and achievements in the business of high school education and administration to qualify." This is too silly to comment on.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 17, 2010 at 10:45 pm

@James: Winston was assistant principal at Gunn so he does have some experience in PAUSD. You don't even live in Palo Alto; leave us alone.

I know of an education major from Harvard who also earned her graduate degree at Stanford and she wears them on her sleeve. This woman is an intellectual snob who is condescending and has talked over me in the past. And she wonders why I don't want to get together for coffee with her. Ivy League degrees do not guarantee a person will be a successful administrator or a likeable person.

Posted by James Hoosac, a resident of another community
on May 17, 2010 at 11:03 pm

I used to live in PA. I still have a rental there. My previous comments are facts.
I never said one needs an Ivy league degree to be the principal. Larry Ellison
has no degrees. Neither does Steve Jobs. But you need someone with
proven track records to take on such an important position. Students are not
ginnie pigs.

Besides, people can have attitudes with or without an Ivy degree. There
is no correlation. Just because you encountered one such person who
happens to have such a degree is not a reason for generalization.

Posted by NoExcuse, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 18, 2010 at 7:27 am

"I never said one needs an Ivy league degree to be the principal. " You implied that status--that is the perceived "quality" of the candidate's college and grad school--were vital. So yes, you did kinda say the principal should come from an Ivy or Stanford.

Posted by James Hoosac, a resident of another community
on May 18, 2010 at 8:03 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

There are many ways to demonstrate a person's capability. Graduate from an Ivy or Stanford, is one of them, especially if the person does not come from a super rich or powerful family.

However, one can prove himself in other ways as well. If Mr. Winston becomes a principal in a high school in Oakland or Hayward. He works hard, turns the school around. After ten years the school makes great strides in student performance. Then I'd say he would have proved himself to qualify as a principal of Paly. This is like join a startup as a CEO and make it successful.

As it stands now, none of these are true.

On experience, he is 33 years old. He taught six years special ed and one year in middle school, before becoming dean of students at Gunn. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

On intellect, again, an good school to graduate from, or a graduate degree will help to demonstrate his ability. But I don't see any.

On achievements, there is nothing much to show either. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Let's be fair and objective. I have nothing personal against Mr. Winston. This is all business. The community needs to be really concerned about this appointment.

Posted by NoExcuse, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 18, 2010 at 9:46 am


You're contradicting yourself about stature/status. You now claim believe that "capability" is what matters.

Sorry, but graduating from an Ivy or Stanford doesn't really tell you much about someone's ability to run a high school.

Principals don't magically appear. They have to start somewhere, and he is starting here. I've seen principals with previous experience yet who were incapable of running a school.

As for intellect, you seem to believe that anyone who goes to an Ivy has a great one. Having known and worked with many people from the Ivies and schools like Stanford, I can only suggest that you are out of touch. Those people are a mixed bag. If you use the status of a college as a marker for intelligence, you will be frequently disappointed.

We need someone who is capable, and your suggested means for selecting that person is more than a little silly.

Posted by Matt, a resident of another community
on May 18, 2010 at 10:18 am

It is great to see that Palo Alto residents are passionate about who oversees the education of their children. In response to your concerns, I think recent articles written about Mr. Winston provide evidence to suggest that 1) he will be an exceptional role-model for Paly students and 2) he has proven that he as the intellect and skills to serve as Paly principal, despite the fact that the path he has taken is perhaps unconventional.

Mr. Winston demonstrates that any goal is attainable with hard work, motivation, and creativity. Indeed, Mr. Winston persevered in the face of serious adversity, namely financial hardships. Therefore, I think Mr. Winston sends an inspirational message to your students: Do not let adversity prevent you from maximizing your potential. I think Mr. Winston also demonstrates that what you take from your education may be more important than who provides it. An education at a top-tier university is something to be very proud of, but it is not the only way to acquire, integrate, and apply knowledge – as you point out (e.g. Steve Jobs). Thus, Mr. Winston has the unique opportunity to inspire Paly students to take full advantage of their high school and college education, whether they go on to Stanford or a different academic institution.

James, you point out that an education from a top-tier university is not the only way to prove merit – just one way. I hope my comments helps you and others who share your concerns re-read recent articles written about Mr. Winston from a different perspective.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 18, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Two things about Mr. Winston.

Yes, his age may be a problem. He is younger than most of the parents he will be dealing with. Is that going to be a big deal? Depends, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt. I for one don't see it as a big deal.

No, he does not have experience with being in the administration of an inner city school. I actually think this is a good thing. One of the criticisms of McEvoy is that she was so used to dealing with problems of not so academically achieving students that she started dealing with our students as if they had come from the inner city. Now we have a principal who has plenty experience of Palo Alto and our schools and understands the way this city ticks. It just may be better to have someone without too much experiene of other types of school districts.

I welcome a clean broom with no past baggage and look forward to seeing how he fits in. Hopefully, most of us think the same.

Posted by James Hoosac, a resident of another community
on May 18, 2010 at 8:46 pm

It's so interesting that my posts are heavily censured while those that attack me are not.

To NoExcuse, your philosophy surely will make you a great principal for Paly. To Matt and Paly Parent, I appreciate your positive thinking.

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2010 at 9:52 pm

We wish Mr. Winston the best of luck-- perseverance and commitment to high performance and execution are rare and laudable qualities-- in both business and education.

Unfortunately the new "Ivy League" philosophy re education is now all about "empathy"

The last fad was "self esteem" which failed so miserably that we now have lots of highly incompetent students who have high self esteem, and therefore no motivation to change.

If Mr Wilson can craft a compelling vision around perseverance, resilience and execution he will a great asset-- he could even get Jobs and Ellison to talk to the students and parents about those issues but he is going to have wade through a quagmire of "empathy chatter" which is really " sympathy chatter" from staff and parents

We do not recall Jobs or Ellison ever being big on sympathy -- does anyone?

Mr Wilson strikes us as in the Harry Truman tradition

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Correction Winston-- the 1984 thing caused confusion

Posted by Former colleague, a resident of another community
on May 19, 2010 at 7:06 am

I had the opportunity to work with Phil some years ago and consider him a friend. Therefore, my opinions are clearly biased. However, I happen to know some facts worth pointing out.
- He has 2 separate M.A.'s from Santa Clara University.
- A year or so ago he completed a principal training program through Harvard University.
- He co-authored an article published in a national journal.
These things aren't mentioned in the article, although I would imagine they were considered when the Board made their decision.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 19, 2010 at 7:29 am

Wow, and he is only 33 years old? I wonder how many people twice his age have accomplished half as much...

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