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Carin Geathers, the new principal at Oakland s Burckhalter Elementary School, tells a boy that he needs to listen to his teacher. Less talking, more listening, she said. (Laura A. Oda/The Oakland Tribune)

This is the first in an occasional series shadowing first-year Principal Carin Geathers at Burckhalter Elementary School in Oakland.

Before Carin Geathers became the principal of Burckhalter Elementary School, some friends warned the aspiring administrator that it might be a "dead-end" career move.

Burckhalter, a predominately African-American and Latino school on a quiet side street in the East Oakland foothills, was one of two public schools slated to close last year, mainly because of dwindling enrollment. District staff members also said they were concerned by data that showed most

of Burckhalter's neighborhood families had chosen to send their children elsewhere.

Burckhalter was ultimately allowed to stay open, at least for another year, after a community outcry about another shuttered school in an African-American neighborhood.

Geathers, 43 — who taught in Oakland for 18 years before starting her first principal job last month — knows Burckhalter could be on the closure list again next month. But, she said, a sense of opportunity and challenge outweighed her reservations about running the 80-year-old school named after Oakland astronomer Charles Burckhalter.

"I thought, 'Whatever happens, it's going to be an interesting ride,'" she said.

The Oakland school district has drawn on programs such as New Leaders for New Schools to recruit and groom talented administrators. Still, the principal turnover rate in the diverse, urban school system remains high, rivaling that of classroom teachers.

Of the district's nearly 120 principals, about 18 left this year — in some cases, not by choice — and 14 did the same the previous year.

With all of the uncertainty about the school's future, Burckhalter teachers hope Geathers will bring some stability to the principal's office, said second-grade teacher Kathy Konrady. Konrady said one of the first questions posed to Geathers during a staff meeting was about her long-term plans: "We ask, 'You planning on staying?' She says, 'You bet.'"

Geathers had a question of her own: "When I talked to the teachers, I said, 'What are we doing here? Are we gearing up to close this school? Because we can do that with respect for the community, respect for ourselves, dignity, and so on. Or, are we actually prepared to fight to keep the school open?'"

The teachers, as she might have imagined, chose the latter. Some of them worked at the nearby Burbank Elementary School until it closed in 2004. A number of students, too, have been displaced because of school closures at Burbank and Sherman Elementary.

It's widely agreed that a principal can make or break a school. Of all the factors in a school, leadership comes second only to teaching in its impact on a child's education, according to research commissioned by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which funds educational leadership studies.

Konrady, who has lost count of the years she's been at Burckhalter — 10 or 11, she estimates — said she has great confidence in the novice administrator.

"In order to get people to buy into things, to do more, to get parents to do more, you've got to have someone who knows how to guide, who knows how to lead, who gets along with everybody, and she really does," Konrady said.

She added, "When she says 'Good morning,' she actually means it."

The first day

The first day of school began with typical bustle and nervous energy. Parents pushing strollers down the hallway; kindergartners clinging to their mothers; families rushing to fill out last-minute paperwork.

A substitute teacher had arrived at the main office, but as far as Geathers knew, no one had called in sick. At least one of the school's special-education buses hadn't arrived, and she was trying to figure out what happened.

After the morning rush had subsided, Geathers saw a little girl wandering down the hallway with a lost tooth. She took her hand and led her to class. Her tooth would be safe in the main office, she assured the student.

For most of the morning, the principal's office was empty. When Geathers wasn't helping parents or taking attendance counts, she was collecting balls at recess or visiting classrooms to make sure everything was under control. She is the only administrator at the 200-student school, so she handles everything from student discipline to managing the school budget.

While observing one lesson, Geathers frowned when she noticed two boys ignoring the teacher. She approached their desks and bent down to look each of them in the eye.

"Listen to me. I don't want you talking when the teacher is talking," she said with a stare that showed she meant exactly what she said. "Less talking, more listening. Do you understand me?"

They looked up at her and nodded.

"That's my new teacher," she had explained earlier, in a low voice, after observing the same class from the doorway. "I'm just checking on her."

Natural fit

Geathers lives in Richmond with her mother and her 7-year-old daughter, Nia, who attends nearby Grass Valley Elementary School. Geathers taught at Grass Valley and Thurgood Marshall elementary schools before earning a master's degree and preliminary administrative credential at UC Berkeley.

"I never really thought I would become a principal," she said. She added, "I'd always worked with good principals, but I'd always heard about bad ones."

Geathers' gregarious personality, her sense of humor, and her connection to more experienced school leaders appear to be serving her well as she copes with the job's steep learning curve.

The week before school started, Geathers set off the alarm while trying to enter the building without punching in a safety code. The next day, after forgetting something in her car, she found herself again locked out of the school.

"That was kind of the entree into this great thing we call the principalship," she said.

And yet, four weeks into the school year, Geathers said, her new role has felt surprisingly natural.

"It's almost like old hat, and it's kind of throwing me a little bit, because I haven't done it," she said. "It's been a fantastic ride. It really has, already."

Still, she said, "I say to myself, 'When's the other shoe going to fall?' Because I know I'm going to hit the wall."

In two weeks, when district staff members release the list of potential school closures, Geathers' ride in the rookie principalship could get bumpier. But it will be months before she knows the fate of the school, and whether she and the teachers will be able to save it.

Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.

BEING A PRINCIPAL isn't easy, but Carin Geathers picked quite a time to start the job. She's in her first month at Burckhalter Elementary, an East Oakland school that faced closure last year, and could again this year. But Geathers
still does normal principal things, such as keeping
students in line, left, and talking with teachers,
such as Kathy Konrady, below right.
Laura A. Oda/Staff Photos