Former assistant principal Arturo Barcenas looks forward to leading the school into a new future
By Eddie Rivera, News Editor
Sometimes the easiest clichés are simply true. Newly appointed Verdugo Hills High School Principal Arturo Barcenas sees himself as just “part of a big family” at the school, and it really doesn’t get more clichéd than that.
“I began here as a teacher,” said, sitting in his office on a quiet summer school afternoon last week. Barcenas, 40, who has been at the school for 15 years now, grew up in Tustin in Orange County, and attended Tustin High School, UC Davis for his undergraduate degree, was credentialed at Cal State Northridge, and earned his Masters’ degree at Alliant University.
“In my family it was either teaching or law enforcement,” he chuckled. He eventually decided to become a teacher while in his third year at Davis.
He moved steadily up the leadership ladder at Verdugo, from teacher to dean of students, athletic director, and then assistant principal for eight years. Selected to the position in June, he is actually one of the few administrators in the LA Unified School District to be hired from within, as many, for various reasons, are transferred between campuses as opposed to being promoted.
Barcenas comes to his position at a time when the school, in fact, the entire school district is facing lower enrollment numbers. As the school is what is known as a pay per student school, its funding is naturally affected by dwindling numbers, as well as students’ regular attendance. (The school currently has a 95% attendance rate.)
“When I first started here,” Barcenas said, “Verdugo Hills was close to the 2,000 mark, and we are now at 1400 students, and that’s a big drop.”
The school used to handle more students from overflow urban campuses all over the district, Barcenas explained, but with an increasing number of high schools being built in LA over the past ten years, thanks to successful bond measures.
“The idea of a mega high school, which is what we were, really doesn’t exist anymore,” said Barcenas. All of which forces the school to attract students in other ways, and create a unique curriculum outside the traditional to perhaps veer a potential student away from a charter or private school.
The school currently houses two magnet programs—A Multi-Media Magnet School, which will be transitioning to a STEM Magnet in 2017-18, highlighting science, technology, and engineering as well as multimedia, as well as a school of visual and performing arts. Parents from anywhere in Los Angeles can apply to any magnet school in the district, depending on a child’s interest.
“We could conceivably have students from San Pedro come here to Verdugo because of our magnets,” he explained, launching into a rave review of the Visual and Performing arts Magnet’s recent spring production of “Hairspray.”
Then, asked about his own leadership style, he immediately says, “Oh yes, my idea is to be supportive of every student as an individual.
“We’re a neighborhood school,” he explained, “so we see siblings and different generations come through here, and often times, when I meet with a parent, they will say, ‘His brother did so well, and I don’t understand why this one is having a problem,’ and I will tell them, ‘because he or she is unique, he or she is his own person. Just be supportive. I think that the more programs and extracurricular activities that we can offer students, really makes the high school experience unique.”
“I try to be very approachable to students,” he said, continuing. “ I work very closely with our leadership groups, our student body president, our athletes, I want to get out there, I want to know the students. I think knowing the students can often help me gauge the vibe and morale of the students on campus, and it helps me address issues, so we don’t have something break out on our campus.”
As a long time teacher at the school, Barcenas is aware of what he calls the school’s “former” reputation.
“This is a very good school, that is on the cusp of becoming a great school,” he said, confidently. “We offer such a diverse program of arts, athletics and academics. Our AP calculus pass rate was 46 out of 48. We’ve grown those programs as well, expanding to AP environmental science and human geography,” he continued, just getting warmed up.
“Even though the population of our school has gotten smaller, we have grown, said Barcenas. “We’ve added athletic teams, such as a full varsity wrestling team for both boys and girls. And even though we don’t have a pool,we have a full aquatics program. And then we also have a full theatre production tech program. I’m looking forward to a lot more of that.”
As for discipline issues, which thanks to concerned parents, specifically at Verdugo, actually brought about the state’s 2010 “parent trigger” law, Barcenas is clearly proud to have seen dramatic changes in school behavior.
“I was the teacher leader in discipline when I was the dean,” he explained. “And, this school has changed a lot. It’s a safe campus. When I first arrived, maybe we had a monthly fight among students, but now, you’re talking about a fight a semester. We do a lot to mediate problems and talk to students before things grow, he explained.”
Finally, asked what he would tell potential students and parents looking for a new high school, Barcenas said, “Come to the school. Visit the campus, talk to the people who work here, the students who go here. We had a bad reputation in the past, but I feel very strongly that high school is what you make of it. If you want to go to Yale,” he said, “Come here, you’ll go to Yale.”
See you in September.