New principal Shauna Ferdinandson loves Analy High School, and she knows a lot about it.
Over the years, she’s been a teacher at the school and a vice principal, but she’s also been a parent there: her three sons graduated from Analy. She’s been a parent of athletes and a band parent and just about everything else in between.
“It’s interesting to have had so many roles here,” she said.
Ferdinandson started teaching in 1993 at Rincon Valley Middle School, after getting her bachelor’s in English literature and her teaching degree from Dominican University. She’s done several stints teaching English at Analy over the years, starting in 1999.
“I was a full-time classroom teacher for 21 years before I went into admin,” she said. “Teaching was the joy and the honor of my life.”
Ferdinandson returned to Analy in 2016 as vice principal, after filling that same role at Maria Carillo High School for two years.
Ironically, as much as she loved teaching, she didn’t always love school, especially not as a young high school student.
A teenage turn-around
Ferdinandson grew up in the Bay Area community of Piedmont, a wealthy enclave encircled by Oakland, but she doesn’t want people to get the wrong idea: she grew up on the working class edges of the town. Her father was an Oakland police sargeant, and she lived in a multi-generational household with her brother, dad and grandparents in her grandparent’s home.
She went to Piedmont High School, where, for the first two years, she was an unmotivated student, “just floating along, under the radar,” she said.
“I had two years where I struggled and then two years of having figured it out,” she said. “It’s like I learned how to learn. Somewhere around the end of my sophomore year, beginning of my junior year of high school, I figured out ‘You know, I think I can do better than this.’ It was an epiphany.”
This epiphany didn’t happen in a vacuum, however. It happened in the context of a high school filled with high achieving peers.
“I was watching other people at my school, and they were making plans about stuff like ‘This is where I want to go to college’ and ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I suddenly realized I wanted that experience and I wasn’t having it. I was still just floating along, not really committing to anything,” she said.
“So when I became really clear that that was what I wanted, that’s when I went and told everybody, ‘I need to rethink how I’ve been doing everything.’ I even told my dad, ‘I think I might want to go to college.’”
By the time, she had this realization, however, she had a lot of work to do to catch up.
“I talked to my teachers and said, ‘I’ve really let everything go, and I’m not sure I can come out of this, but I would really like some help,’ and my teachers were like ‘Yay! We got this.’”
“All of the sudden, when I became ready, everybody was there: it was amazing; it was like a second chance. I had to re-take a math class, and I had a lot of work to do, but I did it.”
Ferdinandson said this early experience shaped the kind of teacher and administrator she would become.
“I am all about second chances for students,” she said. “I’m willing to give a second chance and a third chance. I want every student here to know that we can help them right from where they are.”
She also said these early difficulties made her more empathetic to students struggling with various problems in their own lives.
“When I’m talking with a student who’s struggling, I have this sense — I know what it feels like when everything is a mess — when all of your studies are incomplete and you are not doing your homework and every class you go into is just a bummer and then you go home and guess what your parents ask you about? School.”
“Sometimes that’s why a student might act out or really disengage and get into other things, and so I feel like my experience brought me closer to the work and made me better at the work.
“When kids say, ‘You really didn’t do very well in school?’ I can say, ‘I really didn’t, and I had to work very hard to do well in school.’ It wasn’t like ‘I just love to study!’ I say to them, ‘You know, I’ve been exactly where you are, and I dug myself out. And so can you, but it’s just a process and you have to really, really want that,’” she said.
Wanting is the key,she said.
“When they want it, there really is no stopping them. And when they don’t want it, there really is no forcing them to do it,” she said. “That’s kind of the good news and the bad news.”
How to make the good better
Ferdinandson expects that one of the challenges of leading a school like Analy is “How do you progress when you’re already a high-level high school?” she said. “How do you keep challenging yourselves to get better? Because the worst thing that we could do would be to stagnate.”
With the help of teachers, staff and students, Ferdinandson said she wants to look at every single area of the school and ask, “How do we amplify this? How do we dig in and make it bigger or maybe deeper? I want to talk to our teachers and all of our stakeholders about ‘What do you see? What are we doing really well and where do we want to see that in a year or two years? What’s the big plan here?’ I don’t just want to float along,” she said.
Part of it, she said, is embracing new research and methodologies.
“We need to be on the cutting edge of all of the educational research that is out there. If we are not tapping into the educational research on 21st century learners and the teenage brain science that is out there, then we are not using every tool that is available to us in our toolbox,” she said.
As good as Analy is, there are areas that need tending to. Test scores in both math and language arts have fallen off in recent years, and while standardized test scores aren’t the definition of any school, they can act as a warning sign.
Math scores in particular have taken a beating. For now, Ferdinandson is hoping that a new math support class can turn things around in that area. A math support class is a class that is taken simultaneously with a regular math class to provide extra support and encouragement for students struggling with math.
“We are engaging with our data, and we’re really looking to see what we can do better,” she said.
Ferdinandson said that one great thing about being in a small school in a small district is “that we have the ability to find and respond to areas that need work.”
“I welcome that,” she said. She said she sees it as a challenge
Maintaining a supportive social and psychological atmosphere in the school is also one of her top priorities.
“One of the themes that I’m really going to emphasize this year is ‘Every student, every day,’” she said. “Every single student, every single day at this school should have a meaningful interaction with their teachers and other staff members during the day. All of us — from school secretaries to teachers to custodians to food service workers — all of us are part of the adult fabric of this school, and all of us have to own that we will make a point to always be reaching out to students. So that by the end of the day, every student, every day will have had multiple positive communication with adults on this campus.”
Working from strengths
Ferdinandson said she knows she’s lucky to work at a school like Analy.
“Our students, our staff and our community — that is the lifeblood of our school. Our teachers and staff are top-shelf, and we have the nicest students here,” she said. “They are nice to each other, they are good to our staff, and I know so many times when I hear teachers talking, they are literally just singing the praises of our students.”
“And there’s so many times when I talk to our students and ask, ‘What is your favorite thing about Analy High School?’ and they always say, ‘The teachers.’ I hear that over and over again. That doesn’t always happen in schools.”
She’s also grateful for the community’s support of the high school.
“Our community really shows up for us,” she said. “We really feel that support from them in terms of bond measures and parcel taxes that they have voted for to support our efforts here. The community shows up for events. They donate to the school. If we say we need something, thanks to our alumni or someone in the community, it happens. I am incredibly grateful for that.
“Those are amazing strengths.”
Teachers ready to strike
The teachers may be popular with the students, but the high school district isn’t very popular with the teachers right at the moment.
Like many principals in west county this year, Ferdinandson is facing an uncertain start to the school year. The West County Teachers Association has been negotiating with West Sonoma County Union High School District since last fall, and they have yet to agree on a contract.
In June, teachers voted to strike if the district didn’t improve its offer.
“I have a lot of trust in our staff and our district, and I think that everyone will be very professional. I have a lot of trust in that process,” Ferdinandson said diplomatically.
In the meantime, she is pinning her hopes on a final mediation session scheduled between now and the beginning of the school year on Aug. 15.
“I trust that everyone is working from a good place. I really do,” she said.