ALAMEDA -- It was not just a first day of school for students at Donald Lum Elementary School when their summer break ended -- it was the first day for the principal, too.

Lawrence Gotanco took over the post from Cammie Harris, and it was Gotanco's first job in the Alameda Unified School District.

"Without exception, everyone I met had told me that this was an amazing school in an amazing district," the 43-year-old Gotanco said. "There's just tremendous support from parents, teachers and the people at the district office. It truly is amazing."

Principals and teachers throughout the district spent days before classes began Aug. 25 getting ready for the arrival of students, busy with tasks that ranged from reviewing enrollment and cleaning classrooms to making lesson plans and arranging desks.

Principal Lawrence Gotanco claps his hands to quiet down first graders during lunch at Lum Elementary School in Alameda, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014.
Principal Lawrence Gotanco claps his hands to quiet down first graders during lunch at Lum Elementary School in Alameda, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Gotanco is the new principle at Lum Elementary School. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

But Gotanco was also preparing for arrivals at home: His wife and his three stepchildren -- a 12-year-old girl and two boys, ages 10 and 13 -- had landed at San Francisco International Airport from the Philippines less than a week before classes began.

The reunion followed Gotanco meeting his wife, Analyn, in 2010 while working in the Philippines on behalf of the ASELIS Learning Foundation, a nonprofit that he created to help communities in Third and Fourth World nations become self-sufficient in supporting education.

The couple, who married two years after they met, now live in Daly City.

Their children, however, had remained in the Philippines until last month. They will now live in the United States permanently.


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"Yes, you could say that I am little busy," Gotanco said with a smile about having to juggle changes in his household as he began a new job. "But last night we were all laughing and talking together. I know that things will work out. It's all good."

Gotanco, who grew up in Springfield, Illinois, never planned on education as a career.

After earning a bachelor of arts degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, he went out to get a law degree from Saint Louis University.

He practiced at his own firm in San Jose between August 1998 and February 2002, handling discrimination and criminal appeals.

The plight of his clients affected him, Gotanco said.

"I began to realize that if someone had just stepped in and been there for these people when they were younger, the whole trajectory of their lives would have changed," he said. "I started to feel like a janitor, cleaning up messes.'"

Gotanco switched careers and became a teacher at Mathson Middle School in San Jose's Alum Rock Union Elementary School District.

"As soon as I entered a classroom, I knew that it was where I wanted to be," he said.

Gotanco worked at the school for about seven years. He then worked as an education consultant for the San Mateo and Santa Clara offices of education. He also worked as an assistant principal at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District.

Before coming to Alameda, Gotanco was principal of the Bessie Carmichael/Filipino Education Center, a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus that's also in the San Francisco district. He served in the post two years.

The school has about 600 students, Gotanco noted, compared with the approximately 530 children who attend Lum. But he said his responsibilities at the Sandcreek Way campus will mirror those that he took on at his previous job.

"For me, it's about continuing to guide teachers and continuing to inspire students," Gotanco said. "It's about maintaining high standards and advocating for success."

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

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