Russom Mesfun is the new principal of Montera Middle School, an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse school in the North Oakland hills. A native of Eritrea and a former assistant principal at Skyline High School, Mesfun returned to Oakland after a one-year stint as principal of Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Stockton.
He was chosen by a committee of teachers and parents to address growing concerns about equity and discipline at the school. But on that November evening, Mesfun spoke only obliquely about the problems he was hired to help fix. He drew laughter as he riffed about excessive passing-period hugging and as he described the school's new dress code: pants "upstairs," and skirt hems "downstairs."
Still, through his humorous analysis of the adolescent psyche and his assurances about "a sense of calm," Mesfun made his point. Every child will thrive in this diverse public school, and they will be safe.
"It's working," he told them. "It actually works."
Montera Middle School islocated on a winding road lined with stately homes and towering trees. But only about 300 of its 875 students live within its local attendance boundaries.
In recent years, neighborhood support for the middle school has dwindled, parents say. Rumors of chaos and fighting circulated through the local elementary schools, and some families began looking into private schools.
Others became concerned about the glaring disparities in test scores and suspension rates between African-American students and their white counterparts.
In 2006, most of the eighth-graders who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch took general math, rather than algebra or geometry. Just 35 percent of the low-income eighth-graders and 37 percent of African-American students were deemed proficient in reading and writing, compared with 78 percent of their white peers.
The suspension data was startling. In 2006, between the start of school and Oct. 31, African-American students made up 41 percent of the student population and 90 percent of the suspensions.
In an interview, Mesfun said his staff had made a commitment to make sure all students succeed, no matter what their background.
"I don't think there is any reluctance to confront these issues head on," Mesfun said.
At a student assembly during the first week of school, Mesfun announced there would be new standards of dress and strict rules about appropriate language and behavior.
Teachers and students alike say the message came through, loud and clear, and that the campus is more peaceful. The students described him as strict, but fair. If boys come to school with fashionably saggy pants, he gives them a rope to wear around their waists. Cursing is not allowed in the hallways.
Some students don't like the stricter rules. "It depends on what side you're on," said Mack Woodfox, 11. If you break the rules, he explained, you will face immediate consequences.
But Woodfox and others note that Mesfun isn't just a disciplinarian. They say he likes to interact with students, and that he can be funny. Sometimes, the lanky, 6-foot-3 principal can be seen jumping rope with the students at lunch.
"He's definitely the best principal," said Samantha Mladjov, 11. "I'm glad they picked him."
Notably, the "crackdown" at the beginning of the school year resulted in fewer than half of the suspensions imposed the previous fall and a less lopsided distribution. African-American children, who make up 43 percent of the student population, represented half of the school's 16 suspensions this year. Last year, during the same time period, black students were suspended 35 times.
Nancy Midlin, a medieval world history teacher who served on the committee that selected Mesfun, attributes much of the overall change at Montera to her colleagues. The transition in leadership seemed to motivate everyone to make more of an effort, she said, from contributing at staff meetings to standing in the hallways during passing periods.
"It feels like there is something new happening, and I think people are trying harder to make that new thing successful," Midlin said.
Another difference appears to be the visibility of Montera's administration and staff. During a visit this fall, Mesfun constantly strolled through the hallways and common spaces. He paused to wave at students he passed "hello, hello" and to ask how they were.
In the yard, students surrounded him and asked about upcoming activities. "Can we have more slow dances this year?" one girl asked, prompting shrieks of horror from her friends.
Marcia Riley, a Joaquin Miller Elementary School parent who attended Mesfun's talk at Montclair Elementary, described a similar scene from her visit to Montera with her fifth-grade son, Tommy. She took note of the clean, relatively orderly hallways and marveled about how they emptied of students when the passing period ended.
Riley said that when Tommy was in third grade, he walked through Montera's campus one day during an after-school activity. He told his mom the campus was dirty and that garbage was everywhere.
"He came home and said, 'Montera's a really scary place. I never want to go there,'" Riley said.
But Tommy seemed to like the school when they visited this fall, Riley said. "We've decided not to apply to other schools," she said. "We're willing to at least try it."
Riley isn't the only parent who has experienced a change of heart. Neighborhood families are talking about the changes at Montera. This year, parents formed a group called "Consider Montera" to spread the word about the changes.
Now is the time of year when parents are choosing schools for their children. They have until Jan. 15 to submit an enrollment form with their top elementary, middle or high school choices.
To instill confidence among neighborhood families, Mesfun like many principals in Oakland has doubled as the school's No. 1 marketer. His stop at Montclair Elementary School was one of several recruiting visits he paid to nearby schools.
"I just want people to come back to the school that they have left," Mesfun said. "I wanted to tell them to come home."