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Chris Calabrese: A Principal With Principles

31 October 2016 Written by  By Seana Fippin
Published in November 2016 Articles

Chris Calabrese has been the principal of Loma Vista Elementary School for the past three years and, after the difficult and scandalplagued learning environment that he stepped into, his kindness and intelligent leadership continues to bring joy to my heart.

Chris has helped to develop a strong school community built on a foundation of caring. The happy learning environment at Loma Vista is typical of public education in Brentwood. “I see it at each of my three children’s schools,” Chris said, “and I hear it from them when they talk about their teachers and their learning experience.” Chris truly believes that caring for one another, making a positive difference in people’s lives, and adding value to our relationships is what matters most of all.

Loma Vista was different three years ago, when Chris first stepped into the job. He understood the challenges the school was facing and was fully aware of the fact that he was entering a situation that was not warm and inviting. The school’s tensions and challenges had actually attracted Chris to Loma Vista Elementary, because he had a rich personal history with the school. He had grown up in the community; both of his sons attended kindergarten at Loma Vista and one of them was there throughout all the years of his elementary education.

Chris felt especially prepared to meet the trial because he had served as vice principal at Edna Hill and then at  Garin before spending five years as principal of Livermore’s Rancho Los Positas. Furthermore, Chris had actually begun his school administration career a decade before with a two-year stretch as a Loma Vista vice principal. He knew some of the teachers and staff both personally and professionally, and realized that he had a core of competent and caring school personnel to work with.

Chris’ inclusive leadership style is one of his keys to success as an administrator. He genLoma Vistuinely cares about people and wants to know their stories — the narratives that formed their lives and made them into the people they had become, so he could channel their gifts, passions, and experiences into elevating the Loma Vista learning experience. His goal among the faculty is to foster a shared vision of child-centered learning, and constantly repeats his educational mantra: “Keep the main thing the main thing.” Of course, everyone knows that student learning is the main thing, but actual learning environments can become difficult or even toxic when situations and events cause people to take their eyes off that goal.

BACK STORY
I learned of some of the events and circumstances in Chris’ own narrative that prepared him to excel in his role as school administrator, beginning with his upbringing. Chris was fortunate enough to be raised in a functional family that valued hard work and integrity. “We were taught to live up to our commitments,” Chris said. “It takes a village to raise a child,” as Hillary noted, and Chris commented that the community of his childhood and youth had created exactly that kind of “village.” He said that he was first motivated to pursue a career in education by the inspiring example of excellence displayed by a number of teachers whom he described as “awesome.”

Chris said his parents moved from Danville to Brentwood in 1978 to manage a 20-acre walnut orchard. He confessed that during his childhood years, he was no more a fan of sitting in classrooms than most young boys, however he grew to really appreciate his teachers. Scholarship didn’t come easy and Chris struggled with reading and math. However, he said that his teachers at Brentwood Elementary never gave up on him and constantly encouraged him to master the difficult subjects. He said that he also got encouragement at home because his mom read to him all the time. His dad appealed to Chris’ profit motive and paid him to read books. As a result of all that reinforcement and $50 in incentive payouts, by the time he was in 5th grade, he was a much improved reader. “I walked into Emil Geddes’ fourth grade classroom at a second grade reading level,” Chris said. “And walked out of Wanda Groseclose’s fifth grade reading at an eighth grade level.” 

Chis said that he blossomed in Edna Hill Middle School through the encouragement of another set of excellent teachers and by the time he was a student at Liberty High, he was involved in all the activities he could find time for, including leadership, student government, and wrestling. Chris admitted that one of the incentives for those extracurricular activities was that anything, even wrestling practice, was easier than working on the family’s walnut farm. 

Chris had no original intention of becoming a teacher, but entertained lofty aspirations of becoming a stockbroker. Things changed in the summer following his first year at DVC when he served as a volunteer counselor at a church summer camp. He greatly enjoyed working with ten 4th and 5th grade boys. He told his dad how much he loved working with them. Then his father asked a question that changed the direction of his life 180°. “Why don’t you invest in people’s lives instead of investing their money?”
“I WALKED INTO EMIL GEDDES’ FOURTH GRADE CLASSROOM AT A SECOND GRADE READING LEVEL,” CHRIS SAID.  “AND WALKED OUT OF  WANDA GROSECLOSE’S  FIFTH GRADE READING AT AN  EIGHTH GRADE LEVEL.” ’  NOVEMBER 2016 110MAG.COM 23 “Wow dad, that’s deep,” Chris said. “When did you get so smart for an old guy?” Chris decided to become an educator. “I am amazed at how many of us from the Liberty Class of ’89 went into teaching and education,” he said.

Following graduation from Cal State Stanislaus, Chris got a position as a teacher at his Liberty High alma mater. He said that one humorous circumstance that came out of the hiring process is that Gene Clare, the principal at the time, would take responsibility for the hiring decision, if you asked him. However, his wife Gretchen, also takes credit because she had worked with Chris and told Gene to give him the job. It gets more humorous than that because their daughter Allison also takes credit for the decision. Chris had been one of her teachers and she told Gene to hire him. 

Chris taught USAP, Government/ Economics, and World History. “I discovered that I had a passion for teaching,” Chris said. “My students and I really had fun.” Even though the academics appealed to him, Chris realized that he was becoming concerned for the larger issues that students were involved in — their social and emotional struggles as well as academic. 

It occurred to Chris that he could make a more significant impact on the young lives of the students if he could reach them at an earlier age. It was a turbulent time in his life. His two-yearold child Quinn had just been diagnosed with Leukemia, which significantly altered Chris’ life path and priorities. 

Elementary level education seemed a much better fit for a number of reasons so he became vice principal at Loma Vista Elementary. The position was challenging for a newbie administrator like Chris was at the time, but he said that the staff showed grace and patience while giving him time to grow into the position. Chris spent seven years as vice principal in several schools in the district and then was offered the position of principal at Livermore’s Rancho Las Positas. 

Chris said it was tough to leave Brentwood, but the promotion was a good career move and his experience with the Livermore community and the school were good. “I learned a lot,” he said. He described some significant accomplishments during that time.  For one thing, he implemented an intervention program designed to support struggling readers, fine-tuned the Special Education systems to be more responsive to children’s needs, and harnessed local resources to strengthen the school’s counseling program.

Chris’ most notable accomplishment was bringing parents and the community together in support of a quarter-mile running track. As a result, the success of the school’s amazing running club earned him the Governor Fitness Challenge Award. This caught the attention of Jake Steinfeld, an American actor, fitness specialist, entrepreneur promoting his “Body by Jake” fitness brand, and founder of Major League Lacrosse (MLL). Chris joined Jake, Governor Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton at a symposium on fighting childhood obesity.

Chris said he was saddened when stories about Loma Vista’s problems began to show up in the media. Chris was friends with many of the families that had students at Loma Vista, and knew many of the staff members. “My heart ached for my community and for the staff and kids at Loma Vista.” Chris made a phone call to district headquarters to ask what needed to be done and if he could be considered for the position of Loma Vista principal. He was encouraged to apply. “The interview was emotional,” he said. “It was one I will never forget.”

PUTTING THINGS TO RIGHT
Chris said it was difficult to pull up roots at Livermore, which he had come to love, but he was nevertheless excited for the new position because it meant he was coming back home. He put his inclusive leadership style to work and found the staff to be incredibly supportive. The parents, as well, offered their support. In particular, Chris devoted himself to becoming acquainted with the students and to let them get to know him personally.

The result of his meetings with staff, parents, and students was to get a clear picture that the school needed to develop trust in the community, a safe classroom setting for the students, a strong and effective academic program, and a caring and nurturing learning environment.

In order to accomplish these goals, Chris focused on several areas. One was building relationships with the families of Loma Vis ta students. The school hosted a number of activities designed to bring people together. He partnered with the Loma Vista Parent’s Club to host Coffee Corner sessions during which parents could meet Chris, and share with him their suggestions and concerns. He made it a point to create a number of community events designed to connect families and staff. He encouraged the Parent’s Club to take on a larger role in getting information out to parents about the events and activities he was scheduling.

Chris also focused on communications. He created an open door policy for preschool parents and actively encouraged them to visit him. He and the staff instituted a series of Coffee Talks, designed to connect pre-school families with the teachers and staff who worked with their children. Discussions covered a number of diverse topics including basic principles of communication, stages of development in kindergarten, occupational therapy, and play at home.

Chris also built strong teams bringing together groups of teachers who could collaborate in forming a professional learning community. “We are continually building teams that work together for the common goal of ensuring that all students are engaged in learning.”

Chris said that he is grateful to be able to work and play in this wonderful community. He and his wife Monique have been happily married for 21 years.

Chris’ hobbies include flyfishing, fly-tying, tackling tile projects, and organic farming. “Every day I count it as an honor to be a part of our children’s lives at Loma Vista Elementary and in the community of Brentwood as a whole,” he said. Chris is happy to be back to his roots. “I truly love giving back to the community that raised me.”

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