Next week, Malcolm X principal Cheryl Chinn will preside over her final “promotion” — think elementary school graduation — after 38 years working for the Berkeley Unified School District, 27 of those at Malcolm X Arts & Academics Elementary School. (Full disclosure: My son will be among that group of 5th grade graduates.)
Chinn has been in the district for so long she has former students, now parents themselves, bringing their children to the K-5 school. One former student, Tara Easly-Fouche, teaches in the 4th grade at Malcolm X.
Chinn started teaching at the South Berkeley school when it was what was then called an intermediate school, for grades 4 through 6, serving mostly children from the flatland communities.
Today, largely due to her efforts — and that of a loyal and steadfast staff — as well as a boost several years ago from federal magnet program funds and support for the arts from The Hills Project, Malcolm X is a sought-after, award-winning public school, with a playground that reflects the true socio-economic diversity of this city.
In the past three decades Chinn has faced challenges ranging from major construction and flood damage, to the H1N1 virus (Malcolm X was the only BUSD school closed due to swine flu) and the constant struggle over public education budget cuts. She has also dealt with the ramifications of the No Child Left Behind Act and increased pressure to close the academic achievement gap.
The Mayor of Malcolm X, as I’ve come to think of her, deals with crisis situations on a regular basis. Last year, while holding a before-school meeting with teachers regarding audience behavior at a performance the previous night (a scuffle had broken out between two adults — a school first — the police were called, and the show went on), a student was hit by a car, and seriously injured, at a crossing in front of Malcolm X. And this year, when a purse snatcher tried to make a getaway with a staff member’s bag, Chinn took off after the robber herself. She retrieved the stolen belongings without incident. As always, she handled these incidents in her trademark unflappable manner.
Mostly, though, Chinn spends her time focused on the routine administrative duties of running an elementary school. The 61-year-old, who is married but lives alone in North Berkeley, comes from a family of Bay Area educators — one sister was a superintendent, another is a vice principal.
Chinn is known for running a tight ship and her no-nonsense disciplinary style — as well as a passion for fashion and rather flash cars.
Last week, I waited somewhat nervously outside the principal’s office before sitting down for a chat with Chinn, whom I found in an uncharacteristically reflective and expansive mood.
Are you retiring now because of the latest round of school budget cuts?
Oh, gosh, no, it would take more than budget cuts for me to consider retirement. This has been — is — a very difficult decision for me. This school is my life, the staff and students are my family. I love my job. I still feel the passion and commitment I did on my first day as a new principal.
But it’s time. That’s all I can tell you. I spent a lot of time mulling over this decision. And it’s time.
What was this school like when you first landed here?
It was pretty rough at the beginning. It wasn’t balanced in terms of the student population and it was pretty wild. When it was a 4-6 school I had two campus supervisors. They had to break up fights on the yard. I was hit by a parent once. She struck me across the face and bloodied my nose. That was tough.
But it has always been a good school with an outstanding and professional staff, who are committed to the best in arts and academic education.
What do you love about your job?
I love all of it. I especially love fixing the problems and finding solutions to the challenges. I love the teachers, support staff, and parents, who put in countless hours to make this a better school. And I love the students, of course.
After 38 years you get to brag a little. What are you proudest of?
In 2000 we received a California Excellence in Arts Education Award. Then in 2006 we received a California Distinguished School Award. We tried three times for that award and it was well deserved. In 2008-2009, we received a Title One Academic Achievement Award for meeting the needs of our lower-performing students and making progress towards closing the achievement gap.
How would you describe your style as principal?
Nobody would call me the warm and fuzzy type. That’s just not me. My style is really a holdover from when this was a 4-6 grade school. The bottomline: The kids know I care for and respect them. And I know they respect me.
Malcolm X is an arts magnet school. Do you have a special affinity for the arts?
I don’t really. I don’t play an instrument. I’m not an artist. But what I have seen over the years is that different children learn in different ways and I believe the arts are a wonderful way for some of our children to shine. Drama, dance, chorus, instrumental music, and visual arts can build self-esteem and are as valuable teaching tools as books. I honestly believe that. That’s why we integrate arts into our academic curriculum. We’ve been able to reach all kinds of kids this way.
Everyone keeps asking me that and I just don’t know. I’m focused on this school until my last day. It will evolve. I’m not the sort to sit around, so the next phase will emerge over time. One thing I do know: If they needed me here — if there was an earthquake or something — I’d be here to do whatever was needed.
You’re the proverbial hard act to follow. What advice do you have for the in-coming principal?
Keep pushing the envelope — don’t lose momentum. Build on what’s great about this school, take the pulse of the place and the people, and move it to the next level. Be innovative. The budget cuts are a challenge, the achievement gap is a challenge, but just keep going. It’s always possible to make a school better. That’s why I stayed so long. There’s always more to do.