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Fernando Hernandez: Learning Beyond the Classroom

September 15, 2016

By Mario A. Cortez DSC_0051

Few school principals have the optimism in future generations and the passion for education that Perkins Elementary Principal Fernando Hernandez does. Hernandez has acted as the head administrator for Perkins for the last 14 years. However, he did not plan on directing this school when he first arrived as a teacher.

“I started teaching here in 1995. I was a first grade and second grade teacher. and I was even assigned to kinder one year. I loved that job and I never wanted to be a principal or step out of the classroom or anything like that in the beginning.”

Fernando Hernandez was born in San Diego. During his childhood he attended Sherman Elementary in Sherman Heights and later Rice Elementary in Chula Vista. After graduating high school, Hernandez was accepted at UCLA, where he would go on to major in political science and received his BA in 1992. Hernandez later completed his master’s at SDSU in 1995, which included both his teaching and administrator credentials as part of his training, right as he began teaching at Perkins.

“My mom was a teacher in Colima, Mexico and she always talked about how wonderful teaching was,” Hernandez remembered.

Hernandez cites a series of events that lead him to becoming a principal. The first of these events was a tragic accident that he still vividly remembers to this day.

“In my third year of teaching Hugo Tapia, one of my students, was killed a block away from school. This was on February 26 of 1998,” Hernandez recalls. “It happened right in front of the Logan Heights Family  Clinic and about 40 students saw it.”

“That event put my life in another direction and I became sad, depressed, and angry. I was so angry,” Hernandez confessed to La Prensa San Diego. “But it was my students who pulled me out of it. I saw this resilience, this innocence, and this energy from the kids as they dealt with death all while looking at the adults on how to handle loss.”

Shortly after the tragedy, Hernandez was asked by the principal at the time to become a peer coach staff developer, role in which he was in charge of providing staff development in literacy, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading. Afterwards, Hernandez was invited to be the vice-principal and was asked to take over the school a year later.

“Any issue that you can think of in the world exists on this campus; Perkins is like a microcosm of society which makes being a principal a very difficult job, but also very rewarding,” Hernandez commented when asked about the nature of being principal.

Over the 14 years in which Hernandez has been at the helm of Perkins Elementary, he has dealt with many unique challenges that many schools do not have to worry about.

“In the late ‘90s the main challenge was air pollution, there were switch pump stations and a lot of industry on these streets. We used to have a lot of graffiti and now our school is respected. If you look around the school it is clean now. Back in 1995, the school looked like a New York Subway car with graffiti everywhere. There’s no graffiti now.”

Hernandez also recalled the effort to keep Perkins open to the children of Barrio Logan.

“Our school was going to be closed about 10 years ago. They had moved about 15 of our teachers after Burbank Elementary was rebuilt and six teachers were going to be left here. They were also going to be moving a charter school into this campus and I was ordered to take out the charter school. So we got the teachers, the parents, and the area superintendent together and we defended our school.”

Shrinking student enrollment and constant transfers at Perkins were a problem that was countered by adding 6th, 7th and 8th grades to the school. This has lead to growth for the school’s enrollment and stability in the student learning experience.

“There have been over 800 studies in the English-speaking world about everything that supports or impedes learning and the greatest challenge in students falling behind is changing schools. This is a reason why we changed into a K-8.”

While a lot of work goes into the academic and developmental aspects of the school, Hernandez has also gained recognition for promoting extracurricular programs at Perkins.  One of the school’s most ambitious programs is the Russian Club, which organizes an exchange program an active partnership with a sister school in Vladivostok, Russia.

“We are often times the first Americans, Mexicans, and westerners that the Russian kids ever meet and they are beyond impressed when we visit and when they come here.”

The visit of the Perkins delegation to Russia was even covered by local media outlets due to the nature of the exchange and the background of the students.

“There are six news articles where our students were on the news and interviewed over there. They mention our Mexican heritage,” Hernandez shared. “This was on Russia’s version of NBC.”

Perkins also hosts Russian students as part of the partnership with their sister school in Russia.

“We have a big potluck for the Russian students and we bring tamales, champurrado pozole, tostadas, and all sorts of wonderful food at a local park. The russian kids also attend our classes and that enriches our school so much.”

In his personal life, it is not surprising to find out that someone so invested in education has made a hobby out of learning along with his family at home.

“The day you stop learning is the day you die and I don’t want to stop learning,” Hernandez declared.

“I am starting kung fu lessons this week and I have been hiking up hills to keep in good physical shape. My children have taught me how to ride skateboards that only have one wheel in the front and back. I am taking my wife to cooking classes and I am teaching myself Japanese because I want to do a family trip to Japan next summer,” Hernandez said. “I study out of my Japanese textbook next to my kids as they do their homework.”

Hernandez closed his statements by inviting the community to come and see what Perkins is doing for its students first hand.

“Perkins is one of the most incredible schools and it is open to anybody who wants to come for a tour. You can call and set a tour up and I can take you to see the magnificent teaching we do here.”

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