After five years, Russom Mesfun is leaving Montera Middle School to lead a high school outside the Bay Area.
Mesfun, resigned June 25 as principal at Montera, which the state named a Distinguished School in 2011. He will become a high school principal in Southern California.
Mesfun, a native of Eritrea and a longtime U.S. resident, said his goal in taking the job in 2007 was to create "a culture of high expectations where all students can excel." Parents in the hills and elsewhere "expect this or they wouldn't be putting their kids on buses to cross the city to go to school at Montera."
Over the past five years, teachers met to collaborate and share strategies, he explains. Systems were designed to identify students who were not thriving, and those needing help were identified sooner and better served. The process "created a sense of purpose and soon paid off," Mesfun said.
"Mr. Mesfun marked the turning point for Montera," said John Russo, of Piedmont Pines, a parent of an eighth-grader. "The school had real issues around safety and control, and Mesfun put together a team that got a handle on it. The school became a California Distinguished School under his tutelage. We can only look at his tenure as a success."
Before coming to Montera, Mesfun was a principal in Morgan Hill. From 2003 to 2005, he was an assistant principal at Skyline High School. He also taught history at Fremont High School in Oakland from 1998 to
"Montera had always been a good school but had gained attention around issues of safety and student achievement from parents, student and teachers" in 2007, when he arrived, said Mesfun. "Parents wanted their children to learn in a safe environment. Teachers wanted to do their jobs in peace, without disruption in the classroom. Students were aching for safety and structure in a loving, caring and welcoming way that wasn't punitive," he explained.
Shortly after his arrival, groups of kids who milled around the hallways and disrupted classes disappeared. "Walk -- this is not a shopping mall," is one of Mesfun's favorite phrases. He also hands out belts to students whose pants are sagging.
The school administrator believes the secret of his success has been to not stay at his desk. "It's important to be visible and to spend time with the kids, one student at a time," he explained. "Whatever they are doing, I do it with them."
Like Russo, other parents appreciated this approach and his leadership. "Mr. Mesfun introduced a much-welcomed culture of civility and love of learning to Montera students," said Montclair resident and parent Tina Fernandez. "I still remember him jump-roping with kids at morning drop-off when he became principal five years ago."
"While I'm playing with students, I am watching their posture, listening to their language and watching their relationships," explained Mesfun, who says he tried to learn the names of Montera's more than 900 students each school year.
"I am not just a principal. I am the father of this village," he said. "I deal with the basics -- food issues, problems at home and the breakup of friendships. This is not a nine-to-five job."
Many children who attend the school face problems at home. "They inspire me," reflects Mesfun. "I am amazed at their resilience and their ability to mask a crisis at home."
"He has always been really nice. I will miss him," said Jana Mounla, an eighth-grader from the Millsmont district. "He taught me a lot. He taught me how to be a leader and stand up for myself."
Off campus, Mesfun strove to keep a watchful eye on students in Montclair Village, a popular destination on Wednesday afternoons after early dismissal. He provided Village merchants with his cellphone number, for instance.
"Montclair is the quintessential example of the concept that it takes a village. It takes Montclair Village to run Montera," Mesfun said.
"The partnership with parents has been indispensable," the principal added. "I've never seen a parent community provide the tools that a school needs (like this one)," he said. Parents helped with funding for a music program, technology for classrooms and security cameras.
Community members say that, given the impact Mesfun's made, they will miss him. "He's leaving on a high note," said Fernandez. "Montera was designated a California Distinguished School just last spring, but for many of us, the high turnover of administrators is quite discouraging. Still, I wish him the best."
The departure is bittersweet for Mesfun, as well. "The most difficult part about making the decision to leave is that for the first time in five years I will not have the smiles, joy and company of these kids," the administrator shared. "I will not get to talk to them about their summer or ask them about their new hair color or their braces. This will be very difficult."