ALAMEDA -- Richard Aguirre admits he will not miss the long hours he works as principal of Henry Haight Elementary School when he retires later this month.

But he feels a little differently about saying goodbye to his daily interactions with students in the hallways and on the playground and to the experience of watching them grow and change during the course of a school year

"It's bittersweet," Aguirre said. "It was a hard decision to retire, a really hard decision."

Aguirre has been at the helm of Haight since only February 2011.

His effectiveness on the job was underscored in May, when state officials selected the school for a Title 1 Academic Achievement Award.

Principal Richard Aguirre poses for a photo outside his office at Henry Haight Elementary School in Alameda, Calif., on Monday, June 2, 2014.  Aguirre is
Principal Richard Aguirre poses for a photo outside his office at Henry Haight Elementary School in Alameda, Calif., on Monday, June 2, 2014. Aguirre is retiring at the end of this school year. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

The award goes to schools that receive federal Title 1 funds, which are authorized under "No Child Left Behind" and go to campuses where more than 40 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. To receive an award, a school must have doubled the academic achievement targets set for it by the state for two consecutive years.

Just three of the approximately 200 Title 1 schools in Alameda County got the honor this year. Aguirre puts Haight's success down to maintaining high standards in the classroom, nurturing parent involvement and hiring two specialist teachers, including one who focuses on reading.


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"They do a lot of small-group work," Aguirre said on a recent morning, when fifth- and sixth-graders were away on an end-of-year field trip to the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex and the campus was quiet. "They go into classrooms, and they help struggling students. And it's paying off. We are seeing the results in the scores."

Superintendent Kirsten Vital said the award was a testament to the staff and parents at Haight, especially since some students face "very real, very difficult life circumstances."

About 60 percent of Haight's approximately 440 students fall into the disadvantaged category. Many come from homes where English is not the first language, which can make achieving academic goals a challenge.

As someone who speaks fluent Spanish, Aguirre said he feels an affinity for those trying to master English. But he also said he approaches Haight's diversity as part of life.

"People are people, wherever you go," he said. "Everyone wants what's best for their children, no matter what their background."

The 61-year-old Aguirre grew up in San Diego and was attending San Diego State when a friend told him about an opening for a part-time teacher's aide who needed to be bilingual. Aguirre got the job and found he liked it.

He worked for 10 years as a teacher in Oakland, spent another 10 years as a vice principal, then 13 years as the principal of Hayward's Southgate Elementary School before coming to Alameda.

"I just thought I was ready for a change," Aguirre said. "It turned out to be a good fit."

He usually arrives at the Santa Clara Avenue campus at 7:30 a.m. and leaves around 7:30 p.m. He spends two hours each day helping supervise kids during lunch and recess, a time that allows him to get know them outside the classroom. After school ends for the day, Aguirre settles into his office and gets paperwork done.

"It's the quiet time," he said.

While June 12 will the final day of the school year, Aguirre's last day on the job will be June 26.

First grader Derek Pendola and his fellow classmates talk with principal Richard Aguirre during lunch at Henry Haight Elementary School in Alameda, Calif.,
First grader Derek Pendola and his fellow classmates talk with principal Richard Aguirre during lunch at Henry Haight Elementary School in Alameda, Calif., on Monday, June 2, 2014. Aguirre is retiring at the end of this school year. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

"It's going to be a little strange," the San Leandro resident said with a laugh. "Usually, you spend those days getting ready for the next year. But I won't be doing that because I won't be here."

Aguirre's wife, Carolyn, works as an eighth-grade teacher in the New Haven Unified School District.

"While we are always sad to see good educators leave our district, we are enormously grateful for all that Principal Aguirre has done for Haight's students and community," Vital said. "The Title 1 Award, for instance, was just amazing and a sure sign of the very good work being done at that site. We are grateful to Principal Aguirre and wish him the very best in this next stage of his life."

Aguirre said he has no special plans for the months and years ahead. He may volunteer in a school after taking time to just enjoy retirement.

"It has always been my passion to be a leader of a school," Aguirre said. "A leadership role allows you to help people, and that's what I have gotten to do every day."

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

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