New Fillmore High School Principal is Committed to Academic Excellence
By Dick Diaz — Wednesday, September 19th, 2012
When I arrived for my 4:00 PM appointment with newly appointed Fillmore High School Principal Russom Mesfun I spotted him immediately before I even parked my car. It was not only because I have seen his picture in more than a few news articles while researching him for this interview, but he is also a person that stands out because of his 6'3” athletic stature. He also stood out because he was wearing a suit and tie which, I later learned, he believes he needs to set an example for others, faculty, staff and students, in his position as principal of Fillmore High School (FHS). Because I was a few minutes early I decided to sit in my car and continue to watch Mr. Mesfun.
Mr. Mesfun was standing in front of the FHS's main entrance talking with recently retired FHS teacher Epi Torres. At the same time Principal Mesfun was talking with Epi, he was interacting with students by showing he was interested in after school student activities by watching what looked to me to be cheer leading practice on the front lawn of FHS. If that wasn't multitasking enough, he was making encouraging comments to a student playing a musical instrument just a few feet from where he stood.
I wasn't surprised to see him outside of his office and interacting with students because from my research I know this was his way of “developing a welcome atmosphere for students… being among them and encouraging them.” In another interview with Contra Costa Times reporter, Mimi Rohr, in the Bay Area, he said, “While I am playing with students, I am watching their posture, listening to their language and watching their relationships. I am not just a principal. I am the father of this village. I deal with the basics- food issues, problems at home and the breakup of friendships.” I have no doubt as I watch him there in front of the school that he was doing exactly that. As I approached Mr. Mesfun and Epi we exchanged greetings and he led me into the main building and into his office.
Since I already knew Mr. Mesfun doesn't believe his place on campus is inside his office, I knew we wouldn't be there long. This is readily apparent when you first enter. Having previously been inside this office I noted nothing had been moved around from his predecessor’s previous office setup. It did not appear Mr. Mesfun had made an effort to personalizing the office. The exception was the picture of his wife, Nazareth, sitting on a shelf behind his desk. Mr. Mesfun told me she is still in the Bay Area, but as soon as he finds suitable housing she will be joining him in Ventura County. Not seeing pictures of children I ask if he has any. He told me, “No, we do not have any children.”
As I continued to look around the office I noticed that even the picture hangers, absent the pictures, were still on the wall where pictures had once hung. Then in the middle of the interview his phone rang. He tried to ignore it, but by the expression on his face I could tell he was wondering why nobody was picking it up. Eventually it went to his voicemail; well actually his predecessor’s voicemail. The caller, from the District Office, left his message and made one final observation that Mr. Mesfun's voicemail greeting needed to be changed! I also noted that Mr. Mesfun was continuing his multitasking as we talked. He frequently would wave towards the window behind me which I assumed was at students passing by his office and waving into him. With each wave he would give a smile, further acknowledging them. For most people this would be a very distracting behavior during an interview, but I know from reading about him that his students are his priority no matter who he may be involved in an interview with. So in case you were wondering I was good with all of this distraction!
I begin the interview by asking Mr. Mesfun if he will continue with what worked in Oakland here in Fillmore? Mr. Mesfun tells me, “I see myself like a General in the military.” By that he says he means, “I need to be out there with my troops, eating their same food and experiencing what they experience daily in order to know how to lead them.”
Staying in his office, he tells me, does not give him that feel for the campus and the students! I ask him about an article I read in an online edition of oaklandlocal.com. I was interested in what he means when he says in response to a question about his success at Montera Middle School's selection as a 2011 California Distinguished School. In his response to that interviewer he made reference to two measures he saw as critical to the school's high performance resulting in Montera's selection, “developing a welcome atmosphere for students and encouraging teachers to share best practices?” Mr. Mesfun told me, “Students need to feel safe, respected and welcomed when they are at school. If they feel safe, respected and welcomed they are in the best place possible to receive an education. I see that as my responsibility.” As for the second part of my question he added, “I am not in favor of hiring people to come onto this campus to lecture my staff. I believe that my staff can get more out of sharing with each other what works for them, (best practices) than with some lecturer passing through who will never come back to see how things worked out.” “Besides,” he tells me, “it is expensive and we don't have the money for that.”
Soon Mr. Mesfun and I were walking out of his office and towards the gymnasium where I had hoped to take a picture of him for this article. On our way he was stopped my a male student who respectfully asked Mr. Mesfun to sign a permission slip to allow his parents to transport him after a sporting event. As Mr. Mesfun signed the slip he interacted with the student and eventually we were again on our way. It was just before entering the gymnasium Mr. Mesfun spotted a group of students visiting and doing homework at a table near the gymnasium entrance. He stopped and praised the students doing their homework and for being conscientious. He then chidingly scolded the others for interrupting the students doing their homework with their banter. Everyone laughed, but I did see by their faces his message was delivered! We entered the gymnasium only to see that it was full of girl's volleyball players practicing. Those that were not actively practicing looked directly at Mr. Mesfun smiling as if happy to see him enter the gymnasium while they practiced.
Soon we were out of the gymnasium and talking to another group of male students sitting outside of the cafeteria on the lunch tables. I had read, and later asked about a handshake Mr. Mesfun creates at each school site customized for that school's group of students. Thinking this was a good opportunity to see the handshake I asked again about it. Mr. Mesfun and one of the students quickly prepared and demonstrated the handshake which I tried to capture in a photo! It basically consists of open hand slapping, front and back, and then jumping high in the air while yelling loudly during the jump! What impressed me was that the student already knew of the handshake and there was no coaching to set up the demonstration by Mr. Mesfun! From that I thought, “He really does do that!”
Back while we were in his office I had also asked Mr. Mesfun what were his plans to stop students from from leaving the FUSD to attend other schools outside of the District and to hopefully have some students that have left to return to the District? He told me, “That was a problem at Montera and he was able to have some students come back to Montera who had left for other schools.” He said, “I have already reached out to fifteen parents of freshman that have left the District and recruited other students to talk with students about returning.” He said, “I will continue to reach out to others to let them know I am committed to making FHS one that they will all want to attend!” As Mr. Mesfun and I walked back towards his office we were stopped by two female students crossing the campus. One, who I will call Nancy (not her real name) had had a recent conversation with Mr. Mesfun about making FHS a campus students will want to attend. The other was a young student not yet attending FHS who told Mr. Mesfun, after Nancy (again not her real name) introduced her, that she wants to attend FHS! Wow I thought, “He is really reaching these young students! This could work!”
Another incredible way Mr. Mesfun has reached out and interacted with students is to make an effort to learn everyone of their names! While at Montera Middle School in Oakland he said he tried to learn everyone of the 900 students names each school year. I asked him if he was going to attempt that here at FHS? He quickly retrieved his cell phone and showed me that with every student contact he has he enters their name into his phone and what the contact was about so that he will remember them. He said, “It is important to be visible and to spend time with the kids, one student at a time. Whatever they are doing , I do it with them.” “At Montera,” I said, “you jumped rope with the students! This is a high school so I don't expect you will be doing much of that here.” Mr. Mesfun told me that, “Here at FHS I dance with the students. I think they enjoyed me dancing with them.”
While we were on student activities I asked him about his policy for the dress code he implemented in Oakland of no sagging pants and his practice of handing out lengths of rope, or belts to those found with sagging pants. He said he likes to refer to his policy as, “Skirts south and pants north!” This refers to stopping skirts from being worn too short and pants from sagging too low. In addition he likes to set the example himself by how he dresses on campus and he always wears a coat, shirt and tie. By setting an example himself he feels others will follow.
Mr. Mesfun told me, “The way I approach my job is like a State of Emergency! Everyone has to work together, otherwise it seriously undermines educational opportunities!” He continued, “There is no excuse for us to not do whatever it takes to make students successful. We, at FHS, will do whatever we need to do to give students an education. We will not point fingers, or judge!” Because I was curious I then asked him why he would leave a school where he was at the top of his game for a school with so much challenge ahead of it? He replied to my question, “I like challenge. I thrive on challenge! We can share power and we can do it together! The reason I took this job is because I saw the challenge.” He says he has included everyone at FHS in this challenge. “I have met with the custodians who said this is the first time they have been included in any meetings.” He also told me, “I have met with a hundred parents and there is a sense of hope and optimism that we can make a good school better.”
By now I was feeling a little overwhelmed with this high energy administrator! I felt it was time for me to conclude this interview, but before he would let me leave he told me that he would like me to do a follow up article one year from now to see how things have changed. I told him I would do that and that I was looking forward to seeing the change myself! I am convinced by now if I don't call him this time next year that Mr. Masfum will be calling me! I have absolutely no doubt about that!
As I was driving away I was thinking of all the words I could use in this article to describe Mr. Mesfun; high energy, confident, ambitious, optimistic, different and inspirational quickly came into my mind. In the short drive home I came up with an idea and as soon as I walked through the door I opened the Websters Dictionary to “inspirational” and not to my surprise I saw it; it was a picture of Russom Mesfun!
Good luck Mr. Mesfun and welcome to Fillmore! You have inspired me! We, the Fillmore Community, are all counting on you to turn things around for the students of this great school of Fillmore High School!