In August, Froylan Villanueva started his job as principal of Crawford High School with only four business days to prepare for his new role before students and staff started classes.
“I started on a Tuesday and school started on a Monday,” recalled Villanueva of his first week on the job. “When I got here, I was excited and I’m still getting to know staff.”
He is also still getting to know his student body — the most diverse of any high school in the state.
“We have languages that I didn’t even know existed, honestly,” he said, and listed off the countries and cultures that make up Crawford High — African refugees from Somalia, Tanzania and Congo; students from Mexico and other Central American countries; Arab students; Asian students from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia; and even a Karen community of refugees from Burma.
“One of our strengths is that we are so diverse — but its also a challenge,” Villanueva said, adding that the many languages his students and their families speak make communication difficult and requires a lot of involvement from school district translators.
“I make automated phone calls once a week and do them in English and Spanish and I feel I’m leaving a lot of people out,” he said.
The challenges with language diversity also show up in standardized test scores. “Because they don’t speak the language and [the tests are] in English, so when compared to other schools that have a more homegenous community, more of our students are going to be challenged.”
A 2015 study by Schoolie.com ranked Crawford among the worst performing schools in academics and college readiness and even recommended shuttering the school. For his campus of over 1,150 students where one in three are classified as English learners, Villanueva has set improving English among students as his top priority.
“My goal is to be able to empower our students so that they get reclassified … because not only do English learners not dominate English, they also have the highest percentage of not completing high school,” he said.
Villanueva’s resume shows he is suited for the challenge. He completed his doctorate at SDSU in May with a thesis titled “What it means to be an English Learner,” which included exploring different approaches to multi-lingual communities like the kind found in Europe.
He is also a local.
“I’m a product of this neighborhood,” he said. “I grew up in City Heights, El Cerrito. I see it as coming back home — coming back to the area I grew up in.”
Villanueva’s professional experience is also extensive, having worked as the head administrator at high school, middle school and elementary schools in three different districts, most recently as principal of Southwest High in the Sweetwater district. However, working at Crawford is not his first gig in the San Diego Unified School District.
“I actually worked for San Diego Unified School District as a custodian when I was a student at San Diego State,” he said, adding that he also worked as a para-educator at Marston Middle School in Clairemont in a program working with students being bussed from the inner city.
Besides his studies, his roots in the area and his professional experience, Villanueva also brings with him a personal experience that helps him relate to the English learner students at Crawford.
“I take it personally because I am an English learner,” he said. “When my parents came from Mexico they were speaking to me in Spanish so when I entered Emerson, I wasn’t speaking English I was speaking Spanish.”
Now at Crawford, Villanueva spends some of his time learning a little Somali or asking his new students from Venezuela where and how they also learned to speak Creole.
“I want people, when they see me, [to] know that I’m trying to speak their language,” he said. “I think that in the community that I grew up in, which is this community, there are great things — the diversity is like none other. I want people to know that our diversity is a strength. I feel like I can fit in with all the different groups on our campus because I’m open to it.”
A new campus
Just as Villanueva is bringing a renewed approach to the administration of Crawford High, the campus itself is undergoing its own renewal.
Construction is currently underway on a new building for a CTE auto training program for students that is a project partnership with Ford Motor Company.
“That building will be completed in April,” Villanueva said.
In March, construction on new restrooms will begin and a temporary kitchen will be set up while the current kitchen is renovated in April. And on the first day after students get out for summer, buildings on campus will be demolished to make room for a brand new performing arts theater and administration building.
Already completed at Crawford are new track and sports fields installed two years ago with new turf, lights, sound system and bleachers.
Villanueva sees the renovation of Crawford, which was constructed in 1957, as a way to build pride in the school. He pointed to his alma mater, Hoover High School, and how its recent renovations make him feel about the school.
“I know that having been a student there, I’m kind of proud, I’m like I wish I can be there right now. I know that’s going to be the case for Crawford students as well,” he said.
Bringing some pride back to Crawford is something that the school needs, Villanueva acknowledged, and pointed to the number of local students who commute to attend other high schools such as Patrick Henry. “Nothing against Patrick Henry, but we want our kids to stay in our community and be proud of the school and the buildings that they enter,” he said. “That’s my job, to promote our school and say, ‘Come on back.’ Don’t choice out. Give Crawford a chance.’”
—Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at [email protected]