Four new principals have been appointed to lead three Berkeley elementary schools and one middle school this year. They will be joined by new superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel, who began her new role as Berkeley Unified superintendent July 1.

Salita Mitchell: Longfellow Middle School

Credit: Berkeley Unified School District.

After two years as vice principal at Longfellow Middle School, Salita Mitchell has been appointed interim principal of her alma matter.

An alum of Longfellow, Mitchell feels deeply connected to the school and its students. And last year, several teachers attributed a positive shift at the school to Mitchell’s firm and empathetic leadership style.

“It feels good to be back and be able to represent the students. I can say, ‘I know because I experienced it,” Mitchell told Berkeleyside in January. She described teaching at her middle school as nostalgic at times, especially when talking with teachers who taught her as a middle school student and who are still at Longfellow.

When asked why she went into education, Mitchell said she was motivated by relationships. It’s all about “relationships and giving students opportunity, specifically like our students of color,” Mitchell said. “For them to see somebody that looks like them that has been through similar experiences.”

Mitchell will serve as Longfellow’s last principal under the current middle school zoning policy.

Beginning in fall 2023, students attending Longfellow will come from a designated zone in Berkeley that will include students from the hills and the flats, per a vote by the school board in June. The change will mean shifting demographics at Longfellow, which is currently home to disproportionate numbers of Black, Latino and low-income students.

Paco Furlan: John Muir Elementary

Paco Furlan gives instructions to students at Longfellow Middle School on the first day of school in August 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The new principal at Berkeley’s smallest elementary school is Paco Furlan, who has traded in his principalship at Longfellow Middle School for a new office nestled in a grove of redwood trees in Berkeley’s Claremont neighborhood.

Furlan said the switch marks a return to his true passion. “My heart is at elementary,” Furlan said, gesturing at the giant stuffed bears in the corner of his office.

Furlan had previously been the principal at Rosa Parks in West Berkeley, taking the elementary school from one of the lowest performing in the district in 2009 to a top four school by his last year 2018-19, according to Furlan. Before that, he was the principal at River Road Elementary, a Blue Ribbon School in Eugene, where 90% of students received free and reduced lunch and 90% met state standards in reading and math.

He took a one-year sabbatical in Spain before becoming principal at Longfellow in 2020.

“There were a lot of challenges at Longfellow, and I really wanted to embrace the challenge,” Furlan said, praising the staff and students at the school. “I miss it and I miss them.” Furlan said he felt more comfortable leaving the school in the hands of Salita Mitchell, who served as vice principal alongside Furlan and has been appointed interim principal.

At John Muir, which Furlan described as “the most beautiful school campus I had ever been on in my life,” he has been greeted by an experienced staff and an involved PTA. Next year, Furlan said he plans to focus on involving more families and raising the academic outcomes of struggling students.

Tamara Dukes: Sylvia Mendez

Tamara Dukes. Courtesy: Tamara Dukes

The new principal at Berkeley’s only dual-language immersion elementary school is Tamara Dukes, a bilingual educator who has spent the last six years coaching elementary school principals at Oakland Unified.

A first-time principal, Dukes said she is drawn to the vision of language immersion education. Her daughter attended Melrose Leadership Academy, a language immersion school in Oakland.

“I really believe in its potential to lift up and support all students but in particular, students who are English learners and students who are coming from Spanish dominant backgrounds,” Dukes said, explaining that there is a power to speaking a home language at school. She added that the cultural and language experience is powerful for kids who only speak English, too.

Dukes had a less nontraditional path to becoming a principal. She has taught gardening to women in Mexico’s border towns, worked in violence prevention at Youth ALIVE!, taught Spanish language and literature to Spanish-speakers in Oakland, and coached principals on addressing equity problems.

At Sylvia Mendez, Dukes praised the family-like atmosphere and experienced teacher workforce. As principal, she aims to get Sylvia Mendez one step closer to realizing its mission by closing gaps in academic outcomes.

“We created this school to make sure that students who have traditionally been farthest from opportunity are able to be in an environment where they’re succeeding,” Dukes said. “Let’s make that happen.”

Susanne Reed: Rosa Parks Elementary

Susanne Reed. Courtesy: Susanne Reed

Susanne Reed is returning to Berkeley Unified as the principal of Rosa Parks Elementary in West Berkeley.

Reed, whose grandmother, mother and sister are all teachers, began her teaching career in 1996 as a substitute for her sister’s classes. In 2011, she became a first grade teacher at Berkeley’s Ruth Acty Elementary. She worked as a vice principal at Malcolm X in 2016-17 and led professional development for the district from 2017 to 2020, guiding teachers during the first few months of school closures.

This is her first time as a principal. “I’m unbelievably honored and excited to be working at Rosa Parks Elementary School,” Reed said at a school board meeting this spring, wearing a big smile.

Reed said she was a bit nervous anticipating the first day of school on Monday, and she expects that the “the roller coaster of COVID” may continue to pose challenges next year. “I might wake up in the middle of the night,” she said with a laugh.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...