Interview: Damon Wright, Benicia High's New Principal
Benicia High’s new principal knows he faces a challenge to build unity at the school, and he’s determined to succeed.
“I read the blogs so I understand what I’m walking into. I’m not here to dictate what to do from here on out. I’m here to reach out to the community, hear what they have to say, learn the different skill sets and interests that are here, and work on shared leadership,” says Damon Wright, who is BHS’ fourth principal in seven years. Although he officially started the job on July 1, he began working here weeks earlier while wrapping up his job as assistant principal at California High School in San Ramon.
Wright dove deep into education after working for the San Diego County probation department. Within a month of becoming a probation officer, he realized he wanted to be involved earlier in the process of influencing people’s lives. Thirteen years later, he felt ready to become a high school principal and Benicia was geographically desirable for the American Canyon resident. “I knew it was not sustainable to become a principal in San Ramon because of the commute.”
Wright and his wife moved to American Canyon to be near her family. The couple have two daughters in elementary school.
Wright, 39, enjoys his 12-hour workdays. “Your job changes from minute to minute. One minute you might have to be a disciplinarian, the next minute you’re counseling a student in need, then you’re off to a football game,” he says.
Why did you want to come to Benicia High? Benicia has always been on my radar in terms of where I live. Benicia is a great school, a high-achieving school, in a great community.
I saw there was a lot of turnover, and there were some concerns about the school. I also understand that it’s just a small population on the blogs, and they’re not representative of the community as a whole. You have to take it with a grain of salt.
I see some frustration with the system and I want to be part of the solution. I want to be here for a while. I have to be concerned with turning this around, creating a better learning environment for the students. We’re starting at a great place with an 830 API (Academic Performance Index, a statewide measurement of schools), and I want to reach the next level.
What do you like most about being a high school principal? I get to combine all my previous employment positions, and I’m able to utilize the different skill sets I’ve learned in one job. I enjoy the contacts with the students, the community, the parents. I even enjoy the discipline because I see it as a teachable moment. You have to address it as needed but always keep in mind that it is a teachable moment. I enjoy building leadership capacity within the staff.
What are your goals for your first year I want to develop relationships, build trust and create the ability for shared leadership with the community, students and staff. It’s going to be a busy year. We’ve got WASC (an accrediting team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges) coming in the spring, so I’ll be tightening up the bolts for the February visit. …
I want my staff to feel appreciated; I want them to feel supported. I want to make sure they can do the best they can to educate the students.
I want to support students and their learning, and the staff and their work. I didn’t make that up, I stole it from San Ramon.
You come from a wealthier school district. How will you cope with the leaner resources here in Benicia? Yes, in San Ramon, we were in a pretty good state financially. But within the district, California High was the school that had the least among the high schools. We were constantly looking for contributions. How am I going to handle that in Benicia? I’m not quite sure. If I have to hit the pavement, I will. But money isn’t the solution to everything. It’s the people who make it work.
How do you plan to deal with the low staff morale at the high school? I’ve sent out a general email to everyone, inviting them to come by and see me. I’ve had several meetings already. I hear what is working well, what needs to be improved. I think the more you talk, the more you share decision-making and follow through with what you decide to do—you have to follow through—the more you build trust and accountability.
I am accountable to my staff, to my community, to my students, to the district board—but the staff is, too. That means you have to be very aware of things going on at your school site. Ultimately, every classroom, every course needs to be rigorous and relevant. And relational. Every student on this campus should have a relationship with an adult on this campus, someone they can turn to, talk to.
Do you have a plan to bring together the distinct groups within the school community? That’s a difficult one to answer. I think as I progress, I’ll know better. I’m not sure right now. I won’t be able to do anything until they know me and trust me. I do understand that it is a priority. I’m going to need more information before I know what I’m going to do.
What components does a high school need to be successful? You have to have the community, staff, students and parents all working toward a common goal. I think all the components are in place at Benicia High, but I’m not sure they are connecting like they should. It needs a little push so we’re communicating and working toward shared leadership.
What do you do to relax? There’s not much relaxing going on now. I work late hours. I do feel bad about missing a lot of my daughters’ activities, so weekends are their time. We vacation near the water every summer. We learned to ski three or four years ago so in the winter we go to Tahoe.
What were your favorite subjects in high school? PE. When I was in high school, I didn’t take advantage of all my opportunities. I played football, I ran track. I did enjoy English in the 10th grade and also in 12th grade, because of my relationships with the teachers. I also liked oceanography.
What opportunities do you think you missed? I was not putting 110 percent into my school work. … I knew when I was in high school that I could do the minimum for about six or seven weeks, then earn As and Bs for the rest of the term and end up with a C. I was a good athlete, and my coaches kept telling me to study.
But when recruiters saw my transcript, that was it. That door closed and it haunts me to this day. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think, “What if?” That’s what motivates me to work two to three times as hard. I failed before and I don’t like that feeling, so I work to make sure I don’t fail again.