Between classes, the five-minute passing periods at Skyline High are a little chaotic. Students are abuzz. Teachers, counselors and guards herd the teens to their classes.
Principal Vinh Trinh hustles along with the other adults.
“Byron, let’s go!” Trinh yells. “Anthony, come on!”
Trinh’s salt-and-pepper hair belies his youthful face. He’s not imposing, but students immediately respond to his presence. A few take time to hug him as they dash off to class.
“In Trinh we Trust”
Trinh’s name carries weight at Skyline High School in Oakland. So much so that last year’s seniors painted a giant rock with the words “In Trinh we Trust” to show how much he meant to the class.
It’s not just students who respect Trinh. Parents and teachers also praise his leadership skills. Jeff Rapson has taught at Skyline for nine years and he calls Trinh a tireless worker. “You cannot help but respect that. The fact that he cares is everything,” says Rapson.
Trinh started as an assistant principal and counselor for the senior class. He quickly proved himself as the go-to man, not just for seniors, but for any student trying to improve his or her academics. Trinh became interim principal in 2012 and was named permanent principal six months later with overwhelming support from the Skyline community.
Trinh says there isn’t a typical day at Skyline. “We just prevented a possible fight that could have happened right after lunch,” says Trinh. But things have changed a lot since his first visit to the school.
“Kids were out during class time,” he says. “There was a lack of adult presence. Kids were on their cellphones. Kids were in areas they were unsupervised. Trash here and there.”
He attributes some of the disorganization to years of unstable leadership at Skyline. “Basically, my first graduating class went through four different principles,” he says. “That's just wild! How can you go through four different principles by the time you graduate?”
And that disorganization affected students from the first day of school. Wandra Boyd’s four children graduated from Skyline. She is co-chair of a group called Concerned Parents of African American Students. Boyd formed the group 20 years ago to ensure equal access to honors classes for black and Latino students.
“The parents that I talked with, they were concerned about what kind of education will my child get because they don’t have a permanent teacher,” she says. “How can this substitute for six weeks give a grade?”
A huge cultural shift
This instability damaged the school’s reputation among students and parents. Trinh says Skyline required a huge cultural shift – a tall order for a school of 1,900 students and 86 faculty.
He says he started by using positive reinforcement and instituting consequences for bad behavior. But ultimately, change was about something even more simple.
“It’s just about setting up expectations,” says Trinh. “I think one of the things about students, and humans in general, if you set the expectation, they’ll meet it. If you set it high, they’ll meet it. But if you set it low, they’ll meet the low expectation.”
His approach is working. The year before he started, almost one-third of the student body dropped out of school. Last year, that rate went down to 10 percent, and Trinh is working to bring it down even more this year. Students and teachers also say the school is much more stable.
Partly, that’s because the administration is responding to the violence many students face in and out of school. They have trained counseling staff and a restorative justice program. There’s also a mobile breakfast cart so kids who are late to school can stay healthy and focused.
More buy-in from staff and students
English teacher Jeff Rapson says previous administrations were more top down, but Trinh’s leadership style involves input from staff.
“I definitely appreciate that,” he says. “And I think all the teachers here generally all the teachers feel they have something to contribute and their contribution is valued, and there’s a lot more buy-in by the staff.”
Norrisha Cooper was a sophomore at Skyline when Trinh first came in.
“He made himself a part of the family before just trying to put his foot down,” she says.
She says he took the time to get to know each student and showed genuine care.
“It's similar to if your mom has a new boyfriend,” says Cooper. “He can't just come over to your house and start yelling at you. He has to build a rapport first. You have to build a relationship before he tries to discipline, and that's what Mr. Trinh did. A lot of people saw him as a father figure. A very positive influence on their life.”
Cooper sought Trinh out for guidance even though he wasn’t her assigned counselor. She wasn’t doing well and was determined to turn her grades around.
“So I told Mr. Trinh I want to make up some credits,” she says. “I got C’s in these classes, it’s not going to cut it.”
Cooper is now a freshman and says the workload is challenging. But she’s trying to emulate Trinh’s work ethic.
“Stress is never an excuse,” says Cooper. “Mr. Trinh does not less stress be an excuse to do what you have to get done. That’s something I really got from him. I took that to heart.”
A stable presence
When school lets out, Trinh stands on the side of the long, inclined road that leads up to campus. Almost two dozen AC Transit buses line up here to pick up hundreds of students.
“So right now, it’s 3:05, the bell just rang,” says Trinh. “Like 90 percent of this campus is going to be cleared in five minutes. Just watch.”
While we’re watching the buses load students, freshman Ramani Trailer approaches us.
“Hi Mr. Trinh,” says Trailer. “I go to Skyline High School, I’m in 9th grade. Favorite student here. Right, Mr. Trinh? Say yeah.”
Trinh laughs and responds. “Yes you are.”
As the last bus takes off, the chaos of the school day is now over. Parents and teachers are grateful that Trinh is the stable presence through it all.