Tracy Thompson wears a lot of hats these days: site administrator, instructional leader, fundraiser, sometimes construction foreman, and cheerleader for adults and children alike. Ask him to describe his job, though, and he simply says, "I work with kids."
When pressed, Thompson admits that serving as principal of 37ECB — the San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) newest Momentum Learning campus — is a 24/7 job. He's characteristically modest about it, downplaying his midnight drives past the mid-city campus to see if the buildings have been tagged and his efforts to help students who are being sexually exploited.
Interim Assistant Superintendent Don Buchheit shared this story: "Tracy overheard a couple of his students talking about a flag football game they were going to play in. And that weekend, Tracy went to the game. The students were so excited. They shouted, 'That's my principal! That's my principal!' When they came back to school on Monday, they brought their parents with them, to introduce them to Mr. Thompson. That's Tracy in a nutshell. He goes to where the kids are and connects with them."
Thompson's route to 37ECB has been a circuitous one, beginning in 1981, when he did an internship in juvenile hall as part of his college coursework in criminal justice administration.
The next year he became a teacher's aide and worked his way up to principal in the ensuing years before moving to SDCOE's Student Support Services department.
Interim Superintendent Edward Velasquez and Interim Executive Director of Momentum Learning Jessica McCreary tapped Thompson to take over 37ECB in October. The school was struggling with construction delays and low attendance. Thompson, they thought, could help 37ECB move forward.
"I've been around for a while," Thompson said. "I find ways to connect with students, get them bought in, and help them become leaders. The youngest student at the school is around 12 years old; the oldest is 19. Some of these kids have been in horrible situations, but the fact that they're here (at 37ECB) is the first step."
The school is using project-based learning to engage students. They recently conducted a three-week-long project on hip-hop music and presented for their friends and family and community partners.
"Displaying awesomeness," Thompson said. "The things coming out of (our students) are so deep and intimate. We have a shared responsibility and shared accountability" to help them succeed, he said.
Thompson is aided in his task by a team of six teachers and three classified staff. "I call them the Dream Team," he explained. "We get our hands dirty together. My biggest role is providing support, systems leadership, and stability to make things happen for our kids."
Students feel the love. "He cares about us," said one student. "He always asks how we're doing. He's cool!"
So what's next for 37ECB?
"A lot of construction," laughed Thompson. The school's career technical education facilities — a wet lab for science classes and spaces for training in culinary arts and event planning; welding; graphic design and production; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning — are still works in progress.
More importantly, though, Thompson expects to "build a culture with high expectations of
students, where we're empowering the students and directing that power in a positive direction."
"We're changing lives, impacting the community, meeting neighbors, and building relationships with kids," he said.