By May S. Ruiz
When the class of 2019 enters the gates of First Avenue Middle School in Arcadia next week, the students will be met by a familiar face – Semeen Issa. However, Dr. Issa, who has been assistant principal at the school for the past six years, will be greeting them as their new principal.
That Dr. Issa thoroughly enjoys being at First Avenue is evident given this will be her 17th year there. Recalls Dr. Issa, “I used to work in the Los Angeles Unified School District but I decided to make a change because I wanted to spend more time with my young children. Being an Arcadia resident, I was spending much of the day commuting to work, so I got a job here as a teacher. I taught sixth grade English and history; sixth, seventh, and eighth grade intermediate ELD (English Language Development). I did this for 10 years until six years ago when I was named assistant principal.”
“Moving up the ranks to the top position doesn’t usually happen,” Dr. Issa reveals. “There was only one other principal who started in the Arcadia Unified School District (AUSD) as a teacher.”
Hiring a principal from the outside to bring fresh ideas to the table may have its pluses but as Dr. Issa is quick to point out, “Familiarity with the school culture and how it runs is vitally important. Having a headmaster who is aware of what the faculty wants to see in their principal is a big advantage. I know both sides of the coin, having worked as a teacher and administrator. Additionally, my daughter went to middle school here, so I was also a past parent. Having worn several hats at First Avenue gives me a multi-dimensional knowledge and perspective.”
Her vast experience at this school has enabled Dr. Issa to hit the ground running. During her first month on the job, which officially began this past July, she hired an assistant principal to take on the post she vacated and four teachers to replace those who retired and moved elsewhere.
Dr. Issa will ensure a seamless transition from her predecessor’s term to hers as she steers the course for First Avenue’s approximately 800 students. She, together with her faculty and staff, are charged with making sure that every child succeeds. She says, “The federal government mandates that we educate everyone who walks in our doors. But we at AUSD take it a step further by finding out exactly what they need and personalizing their education while they’re here.”
“This is a constant discussion we have here because unlike elementary schools which have six years to get students ready for us, we have only three before we send them off to high school,” continues Dr. Issa. “And the time they’re with us are critical years because they go through major developmental changes – they enter our gates as little kids and leave as teenagers. We not only prepare them academically, we also make sure they have transformative experiences and become leaders.”
One leadership training program at First Avenue is called WEB (Where Everyone Belongs) program. Dr. Issa explains, “Eighth grade students guide sixth graders as they transition from elementary to middle school. They are chosen from 120 seventh graders who apply in May to become mentors during their last year. Based on their applications, interviews, and teacher recommendations, 40 of them are selected and are charged to look after a group of 10 to 12 sixth graders.”
“A few days before the end of the school year, the newly-minted leaders, together with eighth grade mentors who are finishing out their year, meet with incoming students. They welcome fifth graders from Baldwin Stocker and Holly Avenue Elementary and tour them around the campus to give them a chance to get familiar with the school they will be attending in the fall. This eliminates much anxiety and builds a connection with First Avenue. WEB leaders get their contact information and they keep in touch during the summer months. On Aug. 16, two days before school starts, incoming students come in for their orientation with their WEB mentors,” continues Dr. Issa.
First Avenue offers all the core subjects and a vast array of extra-curriculars. The AUSD has re-installed athletics into their daily schedule to get them ready for high school sports and CIF competitions.
Art electives are a major component of middle school life. As Dr. Issa expounds, “When AUSD transitioned from the junior high to the middle school format back in the 1990s, the faculty and staff had been vocal about the need to focus on the whole child. That meant keeping all extra-curriculars – marching and rock band, chorus, drum line, orchestra; drama (which produces two plays a year); broadcast journalism (that airs live news daily); industrial tech (where kids learn to build things from wood), advanced industrial tech (that teaches guitar-making); advanced art, graphic arts, cartooning; home economics (where kids learn to cook). Because of the new science standard and its focus on engineering, we now offer a class called creative engineering.”
The many opportunities available for First Avenue middle school-ers keep students with their hands full. A rotating seven-period schedule means they have to come in during zero period in the morning for art class. And if all that weren’t enough, teachers continue to collaborate with fellow educators in the different departments to come up with ever more enrichment activities.
During her first year as principal, Dr. Issa plans to coordinate with the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) to expand something that functions well. She says, “I don’t want to fix what isn’t broken for the sake of making changes. Instead, I will work closely with the PTSA to develop more student-centered events. I want our middle school-ers to adjust comfortably to this new phase and to become responsible young people.”
Dr. Issa relates, “Often parents hover over their kids and worry, and rightly so. But during middle school, it’s helpful for adults to give children the space to mature. And, likewise, it’s a time for parents to adapt to their kids’ growing independence. This is a very exciting time for parents as well as for children. I want to provide a happy, positive, and memorable experience for everyone while they’re here.”
With Dr. Issa at the helm, First Avenue middle school-ers are sure to emerge confidently prepared for high school and beyond.