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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Now and then Now and then (February 19, 2003)

Paly principal discusses differences in district, teachers and students after eight-year absence

Sandra Pearson has faced her share of challenges since she returned to Palo Alto High School after an eight-year absence.

Sharp increases in student and parental stress and high-profile tragedies involving Paly students have occupied much of her attention since Pearson was named the school's interim principal in August, 2002.

In fact, she has committed herself to finding better ways to educate students while toning down stress levels during her two year stint at Paly, which ends July 2004.

School board member John Barton thinks Sandra Pearson is a godsend.

"She came out of retirement when she could have been relaxing," he said. "Her's has been a steady leadership with focus on improvement. She is good at drawing the entire school together as a community and makes them feel involved."

Those skills have come in handy following the tragic death of Paly freshman Steven Wertheimer, who committed suicide last October, and the current plight of Paly senior Megan Coughran, the teen accused of a fatal hit-and-run accident involving two children.

"Steven's loss was a wrenching experience," Pearson said. "We tried to reach a balance between honoring him as a student and as a young man and not glorify him. We had a book where the students could write their memories of him and passed it on to his parents."

Regarding Coughran, Pearson tried to turn the tragedy into an educational experience for other students.

"We had an assembly where we talked about personal responsibility -- the fact that it could happen to anybody and how important it is not to get distracted," she said. "About 350 students were at the auditorium and they were incredibly attentive. We told them the difference between being a juvenile and 18 years old. Usually around spring, we have a session on this which is usually ho-hum.

"But now it is different and they realized that they were personally responsible for their actions."

It certainly has been a long journey for Pearson, whose teaching experience spans Africa, Europe, the East Coast and Palo Alto.

Raised in a small meat-packing town in Austin, Minn. with low family expectations, she was the first person in her family to attend college. She wouldn't have headed to college if it weren't for her high school counselor, Edith Olson, who talked her into taking up math in high school.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a double major in English and education, she took up a job teaching English and drama in Middleton, N.Y. She had not planned on a teaching career.

"In those days, we were encouraged to be a nurse, a teacher or a flight attendant. I wasn't good at science, so I knew I couldn't be a nurse," Pearson said. "So I thought, OK I'll be a teacher. It wasn't until I started teaching that I discovered that I absolutely loved it."

She taught in New York for a year and went to Nigeria in 1962 with her husband, Scott, a member of the Peace Corps. They were posted in Sokoto, sub-Saharan Nigeria, a place and time she'll never forget. She taught boys who studying to be teachers. When the youths finished the program at the age of 19 or 20, they would go back to the villages and teach elementary school.

As a newlywed in a remote area who felt no appreciation from her students, it was the hardest year of her life.

It was also her first experience being a minority. Pearson said she'll always remember the student who told her, "You're such a great teacher that we almost respect you, but you're a woman."

Her next destination was Europe, where she taught English to European graduate students for a year at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. Her husband worked toward a masters degree in international relations.

In 1964, the couple went to Washington, where she was one of the first Caucasians at Howard University to teach a program for returning Peace Corps volunteers. She also taught part-time at the Cardozo High School, while getting a masters in urban education.

She faced new challenges at the predominantly African-American high school. It was the year after the riots broke out in Detroit and Washington D.C., and tensions were high among staff and students.

Following the Washington stint, the couple moved to Newton, Mass. in 1966. While her husband attended graduate school at Harvard, Pearson took up a teaching job where she felt a genuine rapport with the students. When she became pregnant, she gave up her teaching job, "because my tummy was showing and it would be a bad influence if the students saw that I was having a baby."

She then wrote curriculum materials.

Her daughter, Sarah, was born in 1967. The following year brought further changes -- her second daughter, Elizabeth, and a move to Palo Alto.

After spending five years as "super mom" and "super volunteer," Pearson started working part-time at Wilbur School (now JLS Middle School) in 1972.

As her kids grew older, she increased her teaching time and eventually became assistant principal at Palo Alto High School in 1984. She took the helm at Paly in 1988 and retired in 1994.

For the next eight years, she and her husband spent time hiking and traveling. She came out of retirement in August 2002 after former principal Fred Dreier abruptly left.

When Pearson found out the position, she asked her husband's advice while hiking at Bear Valley at an elevation of 7,500 feet. He told her to go for it.

Pearson recently sat down with Weekly Staff Writer Priya Padmanabhan and Editor Jay Thorwaldson in a mid-year assessment of her second-round as principal and what she's learned in her educational career.


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