Good Works

Eric Temple’s Mission of Inclusion

By Paul Wilner

The head of school at San Francisco’s Lick-Wilmerding High touts an elite yet accessible pipeline to prestigious colleges on both coasts, with a tradition of flexible tuition.

Eric Temple poses in Lick-Wilmerding’s technical arts workshop, which allows students to “get out of the classroom, walk around and use their hands,” he says. “There’s something very Zen-like about sanding a piece of wood for 20 minutes. (Spencer Brown)

Head, heart, hands.

It’s an unusual motto for an elite San Francisco institution that regularly places students in the best colleges in the country, but one that suits Lick-Wilmerding’s stated mission as “a private school with public purpose.”

Commonly known as “Lick,” it was founded circa 1895 by real estate baron James Lick, who donated half a million dollars, and also bears the name of Jellis Clute Wilmerding, a failed prospector turned whiskey entrepreneur who offered another substantial grant. In 1912, the Lux School for Industrial Training for Girls, endowed by Miranda Lux, the wife of a cattle rancher, began using Lick’s facilities with the mandate “to do common things uncommonly well.’’ Four decades later, Lick moved to its current campus on Ocean Avenue and became boys-only. The school was tuition-free until 1972, when it began charging for enrollment as the original endowments wound down. And that same year, amid the progress of the women’s movement, it opened its doors to girls.

Today, Head of School Eric Temple, an unpretentious 56-year-old former East Coaster, is tasked with maintaining the Lick reputation for academic excellence, social responsibility and access to diverse communities. “We literally bring in kids from every ZIP code in California and from a wide range of economic backgrounds,” says Temple, who leads a “student body that’s about 59 percent students of color.” He’s been at the helm for eight years following stints at other private schools in the Ojai Valley and on the Peninsula.

These days, annual tuition tops out at $49,215, but an innovative “flexible tuition’’ plan — the school avoids the term “financial aid’’ — helps give 37 percent of students a leg up, providing support ranging from $700 to $47,000. “Access is still a cornerstone of our identity,” Temple maintains, adding that many students come from public and parochial schools. Their parents, he says, are wary of private schools because of the cost.

A new $26 million campus expansion by the EHDD architectural firm has enlarged classrooms, laboratories and dance studio space, and will allow the school to grow from 527 students this fall to 550 by 2021. Lick is famously successful at placing its students in Ivy League prestige and their West Coast equivalents, with a substantial number of graduates going on to attend Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley and a host of other institutions. Temple, however, emphasizes the diversity of choices.

“We really value helping students find the right place,’’ he says. “Certainly, we have our share of kids going to [Ivy League] schools, where they do really well. But we also have students going to Syracuse, which has a really great architecture program, and St. Andrew’s in Scotland. Another student is going to Minerva College, a fascinating place which doesn’t have a physical campus. The kids live in a different country each semester. And several students have also gone to [Canada’s] Quest University.”

Today’s teens are exposed to almost unthinkable stress, on issues ranging from school shootings to bullying, internet bombardments and the pressure to get into the “right’’ schools.

“There’s definitely been a rise in adolescent anxiety, which we address with a multi-pronged approach,” Temple says. Freshmen take a required course focusing on mindfulness, yoga and rock climbing, and a sophomore sex ed class offers guidance on navigating relationships. He adds that Lick’s technical arts emphasis allows students to “get out of the classroom, walk around and use their hands. There’s something very Zen-like about sanding a piece of wood for 20 minutes.”

To help avoid helicopter parenting or undue pressure, Lick’s meetings with parents tend to reinforce school values starting in ninth grade and put off the inevitable stress of focusing on college until the second semester of junior year. The sense of community is hard-baked into the Lick-Wilmerding experience, most notably in its Center for Civic Engagement, established in 2008 by Temple’s legendary predecessor, Dr. Al Adams.

“Lick is a school that works really hard to be part of communities, not apart from them,” Temple says. “Al started that, along with flexible tuition. We have a four-year public-purpose requirement for all students. Our goal is to graduate students who are actively engaged in their communities to help them to be better.”

He cites a class called Private Skills with Public Purpose that engages students with nonprofits and projects such as building furniture for Vincent Academy, an East Oakland charter school.

They’re even making strides at staving off tech addiction. “Earlier this year, I sat down to have lunch with a bunch of senior boys,’’ Temple recalls. “When one pulled his cellphone out, another boy said, ‘Oh, no, no, no — don’t you remember? We don’t use our cellphones during lunch, we talk to each other.’”

The English department offers modernized courses including Gender and Sexuality in Literature; Coates, Shakespeare, Twain and Rankine: Art to Awaken Our World; and Utopian/Dystopian Literature. Asked which book he’d recommend as essential to the class of 2020, Temple paused for a second, then laughed.

“Oh gosh, in the time in which we’re living, I hope they’re still reading 1984.”

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