Good principals

By Michelle Konstantinovsky

It’s no secret that educators are some of the hardest-working, most underrecognized heroes out there. But unless you’re familiar with the San Francisco school system, you might not know about the pioneering leaders at the helm of some of the Bay Area’s most interesting and innovative institutions. While principals, headmasters and presidents may not necessarily have loads of daily face-to-face time with students and parents, they are often responsible for cultivating and maintaining their school’s distinct vision and spirit. From creating inclusive communities to raising the academic bar for success, they’ve got a lot on their plates, and some have managed to do it with exceptional grace. Meet four who deserve top marks.

Wanda M. Holland Greene

Head of the Hamlin School

The summer of 2008 wasn’t exactly an ideal time for Wanda M. Holland Greene to pack up and move cross-country. She and husband Robert had just welcomed their second child, Jonathan, and older son David was still a toddler. But when San Francisco’s Hamlin School selected Holland Greene as their new leader, she knew it was time to leave Boston behind.

The K through 8’s mission—“to education girls to meet the challenges of their time”—resonated with Holland Greene.

“Education needs to be about relevance and solving the world’s problems; not about hanging diplomas on the wall,” she says.

Since joining Hamlin nine years ago, Holland Greene has earned a reputation as one of the Bay Area’s most passionate educators. Before heading west, the Brooklyn native spent 11 years at The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she began leading the middle school division. When the head of school took sabbatical, Holland Greene stepped in. “I had this incredible opportunity to get in the sandbox there…and then he came back,” she recalls. “I was like, Wait a minute, give me back my toys! It was like I ate one potato chip and I found myself wanting more.”

Holland Greene’s appetite was satiated for four years, thanks to the creation of an assistant head of school position just for her. But Hamlin presented an enticing opportunity to cultivate a community of modern learners while staying true to the 154-year-old institution’s roots.

“People may wonder, Why are the girls here talking about human trafficking or Black Lives Matter or food security in San Francisco?” she muses. “And it’s because embedded in the DNA of the school is the idea that students should be prepared for the challenges they’ll face in their future—not our past.”

One piece of Holland Greene’s strategy for supporting progressive education and development is unconditional acceptance. “We give students full permission to be authentically themselves,” she says. “We say to the girls, ‘You do not need to check your identity at the door when you come to school—I want you to have self-love and self-acceptance.’”

Holland Greene believes fostering this brand of genuine confidence creates a supportive community that embraces individuality—even when individuals slip up. “We had a huge admissions event and the girl who was picked to speak just froze,” she recalls. “That was one of the most important moments of the year for her—not four months later, when she did other things that went great—but that act of public daring where she fell short.” To Holland Greene, that student’s bravery and resilience and her classmates’ unwavering encouragement embodied the five key values of The Hamlin Creed: compassion, courage, honesty, respect and responsibility.

“I tell students all the time, ‘This is your launching pad to change the world,’” she says. “That’s why I moved 3,000 miles away with a baby and a toddler.”

David H. Stull

President of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

When David H. Stull stepped into the role of president at the Conservatory of Music in 2013, he brought with him an impressive history of achievements as a professional tubist and an educator. As dean of The Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Stull even caught the eye of the country’s top brass: Barack Obama presented the institution with the National Medal of Arts in 2010, due in large part to Stull’s innovative academic contributions.

While he maintains a music-centric curriculum at the Conservatory, Stull works hard to ensure that students emerge as well-rounded scholars and storytellers.

“Education should serve students for a lifetime, that’s a mantra that’s meaningful for us,” he says. “We built the program to provide a compelling, contextual awareness of how music has evolved from different cultures, and how its origins reflect humanity in the broader world. That requires attention and education separate from the high-level professional training of musicians. It’s a liberal arts education.” That might mean that musicians perfecting works of the Renaissance era simultaneously study the history of the Medici family or the politics of Florence.

Students are also expected to lead their own unique projects during the winter term in order to explore the world beyond the Conservatory’s walls. “The idea is to practice risk-taking and leadership before graduation, not after,” Stull stresses, noting that Conservatory graduates include world-class musicians as well as business-savvy CEOs, like Blue Bottle Coffee founder James Freeman. “We’re proud of the fact that our school prepares people for success.”

Barnaby Payne

Principal of Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts

As a San Francisco native, the spouse of a principal and the father of two young students, Barnaby Payne knows a thing or two about the city’s schools—and that street cred doesn’t even account for his 20-plus years as an educator. Beginning as an eighth-grade American history teacher, Payne served as principal for seven of his 10 years at Abraham Lincoln High School, before making the move to Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2016. His decades of dedication haven’t gone unnoticed: He was named High School Principal of the Year by Mayor Ed Lee in 2015, and shortly after taking the top position at Lincoln, he was selected to participate in the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s Principal Fellows Program. As the school district solidifies plans to relocate Payne’s school to the future arts center at 135 Van Ness, he remains humbled by the community he leads. “The students of San Francisco are such a pleasure to work with,” he says. “They’re young people who are so worldly and sophisticated and hard-working and able to overcome all kinds of challenges.”

Gary Cannon

Principal of Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory

Former religious studies teacher and football coach Gary Cannon has overseen Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory since 2011, and considers the school’s proximity to the city’s cultural center a huge asset. “We’re so close to tech and to the arts with SFJAZZ, the Ballet, the Opera House and even Twitter,” he says, also noting the impending opening of California Pacific Medical Center’s future Van Ness campus. “We’re working to connect our students to experiences in the community around them.” The social network within the school is strong too: Cannon says when a student unexpectedly lost his father, classmates and faculty rallied around him. “He ended up giving the salutatorian speech at graduation and reflected on what that meant. Moments like those are the highest moments; to see what happens as students grow and mature is quite a gift.”

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