(Mission Times Courier, San Diego, CA) - Anyone doubting the determination of Patrick Henry High School’s new principal need look no further than last spring when Elizabeth “Listy” Gillingham was training for the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.
Three months before Gillingham was set to join 101 other runners who would have completed a 15th straight Rock ‘n’ Roll since its inception, the then-principal at De Portola Middle School in Tierrasanta broke her leg in a freak volleyball accident.
Gillingham finished the race, walking the entire 26.2 miles in a little more than 6 hours, 32 minutes.
“I’m a doer,” she said in a recent interview. “I like to get things done.”
Indeed. While she was at De Portola, the middle school consistently surpassed state and federal education goals and was named a national “school to watch” three times. Now she’s settling in at Patrick Henry, a campus not far from her San Carlos home.
“She is a very, very strong principal,” said David Lorden, San Diego Unified School District’s area superintendent for the Patrick Henry, Serra and Scripps Ranch high school clusters. “She has the ability to build a cohesive team, and she does this by listening, leaning in, reaching out, being honest and investing in people.”
Pacific Beach Middle School principal Ernest Remillard, who served as an assistant principal under Gillingham at De Portola, was more direct: “Patrick Henry is getting an all-star,” he said.
Can she live up to the hype? Gillingham said she comes to Patrick Henry, a campus with an enrollment of about 1,900 students, with no preconceived notions of the school and no agenda.
“It’s hard to jump into a new school and tell people what to do. I plan to go in, look at our strengths and work to make them stronger and look at our weaknesses and work to eliminate them,” she said.
Gillingham, 54, is a native San Diegan who earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from San Diego State University in 1980. She earned a teaching credential from the university on Montezuma Mesa the following year, then taught algebra and geometry at Standley Middle School in University City for nearly a dozen years. In 1993, she went to Scripps Ranch High School and taught algebra and geometry there while also serving as a resource teacher.
Gillingham earned her masters degree in educational administration and secured an administrative credential from United States International University in 1998, then served as a resource instructor for San Diego Unified. She returned to Scripps Ranch as an assistant principal in 1999, and she was named principal at De Portola in 2003.
She quips that being a principal is “one day of problem solving day after day.”
By all accounts, she was beloved at De Portola.
“Listy’s vision plus her problem-solving skills, plus her people skills, plus her can-do temperament, equals one amazing leader,” said De Portola teacher Carmen Munnelly. “Her ability, too, to deal with touchy teachers and calm blustery parents is nearly paranormal.”
Ed Schmidt has been on the De Portola Foundation board for five years and has served as president of the group the past two. He, too, is effusive in his praise.
“I have been in business myself for 20 years and I am greatly impressed with how Listy juggled budgets, funding and school priorities each year. She had a goal of providing the students with broad academic and extracurricular opportunities while maintaining high standards of student achievement. In doing so she worked closely with the Foundation and the PTA to maximize the ‘bang’ from Foundation grants,” he said.
“Listy would be an amazing addition to any business or company, but thankfully for our kids she has chosen to use her skills and talents in public education.”
Gillingham, who said she’s “passionate about education,” emphasized that a good principal requires myriad skills. “You have to be a good sales person. You have to be someone who can relate with students, staff and parents and keep everybody happy. And you have to love what you are doing.”
She said her strengths include “having a belief in what you’re doing is the right thing and getting people to have that belief, too.”
At De Portola, Gillingham said, “We worked very well as a team.”
“We never took ‘no’ for an answer. We were always looking for ways to do better. And we had a very collaborative, strong staff.”
That combined to make the campus among the better performing schools in the district.
Remillard said Gillingham excelled at “listening to her staff and the people around her.”
Lorden pointed to Gillingham’s leadership when a growing number of students began blowing off homework assignments. She instituted a “three strikes” policy that ended with homework-less students being sent to the office. There, they had to phone a parent or guardian, guaranteeing family intervention. Then they had to complete the missing assignment before leaving.
Lorden also pointed to a Circle of Friends program at De Portola that teamed disabled and non-disabled students, providing support groups to both.
“She’s also very high on student and staff recognition, and I think that makes students and staff want to do more,” Lorden said.
Gillingham, however, is not a miracle worker. There is only so much a principal can do.
“I don’t want any child to fail, but we all have students who, no matter how hard you try, will sometimes fall through the cracks,” Gillingham said.
She once told KPBS radio: “I don’t know one school principal that doesn’t pull they’re hair out trying to figure out how to do things better, I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t look at every student in that class and try to help them succeed.”
What drove Gillingham to spend a career in a profession that often finds itself under attack from politicians and parents? She said it was her time as a YMCA camp counselor, where Gillingham met her future husband of 34 years. She said she realized then that helping kids and helping kids learn was her passion.
The couple has three children, 29, 27 and 25. One is an English teacher in Spain. Another is teaching English at Francis Parker Middle School. A third is director of extended studies at High Tech Middle School in San Diego.
Gillingham’s vision for Patrick Henry? “To help get us to the top of the charts and create a school where all our kids can get accepted into any college they want to go to.”
Said Munnelly: “Patrick Henry High School is the luckiest school in the nation.”