There’s no buzz that usually surrounds a school year kick-off. No balloons or donuts for the staff or “Welcome Back” signs.
Oh, it’s still readin’, writin’ and arithmetic. But it’s also COVID-19, and the pandemic has forced the Vallejo City Unified School District to start Aug. 17 with distance learning — much like the rest of the state, if not the country.
As if it isn’t difficult enough for a first-year principal.
Yet, Leah Dubinsky gratefully tackles the rookie assignment at Lincoln Elementary School after bidding Walnut Creek Intermediate good-bye after six years as assistant principal.
“I’m really excited about it,” Dubinsky said, interviewed Friday morning at the downtown school.
With the eventual goal of preparing students for high school and college or careers, and a Halloween goal of knowing each student by name, Dubinsky’s easing into the new role and the adjustments that are along for the ride.
Take the comparative enrollments and staff size. Walnut Creek Intermediate at 1,100 students and 46 teachers. Lincoln expects 170-plus kids and seven teachers.
“I feel like this is an amazing place because it’s so small,” Dubinsky said. “It’s a lot less moving parts.”
Dubinsky saw the posting for the position in early spring, applying with her former principal’s encouragement.
“She has really been advocating me to make this move,” Dubinsky said. “She gave me lot of leadership opportunities, a lot of space to lead.”
Dubinsky recalled telling her husband “I really like those people” after an initial meeting with the Vallejo district’s interviewing panel. Still, after about a month of silence, “I kind of moved on, thinking they must be going with someone else. I thought maybe the ship had sailed.”
The call, however, finally came. And Dubinsky would find herself thrilled to commute from her Pleasant Hill home.
It was her K-12 experience and her interest in social justice that impressed the hiring committee, Dubinsky said, emphasizing she has “high expectations” for the students.
“I will love these kids,” she said. “And I will be of comfort to them. But I will also push them so they will have what they need when they’re done here. The best thing I can do is get them prepared for what’s next. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Oddly, Dubinsky’s father, David Kramer, taught chemistry the last few years of his career at Jesse Bethel High School.
“He learned how hard teaching is,” Dubinsky said, acknowledging her dad “giggled” when she said she took a job in Vallejo.
“He’s excited for me. I think he’s pretty proud,” she said. “He has some very fond memories, some breakthrough moments.”
Though Walnut Creek Intermediate had roughly 15 percent of students qualify for free lunches and there were perhaps pockets of low-income kids at Dubinsky’s previous administrative positions in San Ramon and San Rafael, she said she’s prepared to teach and work with students — and parents — of all races, cultures and socio-economic levels.
Granted, “I grew up with a pretty privileged childhood” in Lucas Valley, Marin County, said Dubinsky, eventually graduating from Cal-Berkeley.
“What led me to education in the first place was my first undergrad class, ‘Education and Diversity’ and how the system perpetuates outcomes for particular groups of people,” Dubinsky said. “It really hooked me in.”
Dubinsky acknowledged that some parents might view her as “some white girl from a rich area.” Still, she’s ready to earn their trust.
“I’ve worked with all kinds of kids, all kinds of places,” she said, including a summer position at Oakland Tech and Girl Scout program at Hunter’s Point in the Tenderloin in San Francisco.
“There are kids everywhere who need help,” Dubinsky said. “I know that people might take time to trust me because I’m a white lady and I’m fine with that. I’m here to listen and learn what this community needs and wants from me and what these teachers need and want from me to best serve the community.”
Dubinsky did her research and understood the challenges facing the Vallejo school district, especially fiscally, with Lincoln often on a list of potential closures.
“The big burden is to keep improving the outcomes of students and show whoever needs to be shown this school should stay,” Dubinsky said. “The long-term goal is to know that the kids who leave Lincoln finish the 12th grade and have many options.”
As the only new principal in the district, Dubinsky was thrust into learning a new distance-learning system to cope with COVID-19. Teachers throughout the district have the option of working from their classroom or from home, with schedules planned accordingly to avoid the entire staff at the school the same day.
Distance-learning “is definitely on my mind it could last,” Dubinsky said. “I think once the county and the CDC guidelines say it’s safe, I think we should get the kids back being around their peers. Giving a student a hug and greeting them is irreplaceable. That’s the part that’s so hard right now.”
Dubinsky said working through the pandemic at Walnut Creek Intermediate, having to “look at them (the students) on the screen or talk on the phone instead of putting your arm around them or consoling them is really rough. That will continue here and we’ll have to jump through that hurdle. I look forward to when we can be in the building together, even if it’s a hybrid schedule.”
The first goal with opening day looming, “is for us to feel really confident in our ability to teach students in distance learning,” Dubinsky said. “And I want my teachers to have all the tools and support they need. Also, I want the families to have what they need to engage. Then I want to get our school in ‘shining star’ mode and I want to see these kids every day.”
Dubinsky believes she’ll be working from her Lincoln office most days, though she might have to hang at home occasionally to be with her husband, Dennis, 7-year-old daughter, 10-year-old-son, and new pup, “Vegas.”
Even six months into COVID-19, “this is all new for us,” Dubinsky said, adding that it was helpful for her job to see how her own kids handled distant learning.
“I learned all about how they are as students and why I get the phone calls from their teachers,” Dubinsky said. “It definitely made me empathetic toward parents.”