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Q&A: San Francisco School Principal Armen Sedrakian on Creating Opportunities for Students

As Principal of San Francisco’s Lawton Alternative School, Armen Sedrakian is a firm believer in providing students with self-paced opportunities to learn, comprehensive approaches to boosting literacy, and accessible ways to learn about technology. He was originally attracted to teaching as a teacher’s assistant at UC Davis in Economics. After more than 20 years as a teacher, he became an Assistant Principal and is now entering his fourth year as Lawton’s Principal.

Lawton Alternative School, along with other schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, has benefited from Principal’s Innovation Fund investments from Salesforce, and Salesforce employees have volunteered at the school, assisting students with everything from science projects to learning about technology. We caught up with Sedrakian for an interview on challenges that schools are facing and how companies can help.

Why is it important for students to learn computer science skills?

Computers are not magical instruments. Before I was a principal, I was teaching computer science, and I was trying to remove the aura of the black box and make it clear what the power and limitations of computers are. Computers are ubiquitous and pervasive in our lives. So, it’s critical that students are comfortable and know how to use them. Additionally, here in the Bay Area, it is an important employment opportunity and students should be aware of the opportunities that may exist for them in the future.

Can you share what you’ve been able to do with the Principals Innovation Fund ($100K of unrestricted funds)?

In the first few years of utilizing the Principal’s Innovation Fund, we prioritized bringing technology into the classroom so that all middle school students have access to technology.

After we accomplished this goal, we then empowered teachers and students with skills to use audiovisual equipment so they can present a variety of information from the internet to a classroom and to each other. We made a big investment to set up every classroom to be modern with audiovisual presentation capabilities.

Then, the third phase was getting further into differentiating instruction, supporting students at their levels, and that’s where we invested in powerful education tools. With students, it’s not one-size-fits-all. This approach included online subscriptions and using the money to support classroom libraries, which are quite expensive, so that students have tools and can read and work at their own level.

With the Principal’s Innovation Fund, I was able to give teachers the tools they needed especially for reading and writing, and we implemented a reader’s and writer’s workshop to empower teachers to teach students at their level.

What are some challenges schools are facing and how can companies help?

Two of our biggest challenges are time and resources to differentiate between students, and give each student the teaching they need specific to the way they need to learn.

Therefore, if teachers have tools that can help, they can more easily give each student the specific teaching they need. Providing teachers with tools and professional development on how to use those tools are the biggest challenges to meet the needs of our students. We utilize software that can help give students access to different resources and support.

Another way companies can help is by providing different career options, or knowledge of career options, so that students know what opportunities exist and what skills are necessary for careers they’re interested in.

What have Salesforce volunteers done at your school?

Salesforce volunteers have been so helpful, in so many ways. Their work at our site has been with great humility and tremendously high competence and enthusiasm.

One way is operational, just by getting classrooms ready and helping us with efficiency. Going back to my earlier point of teachers not having enough time, there often isn’t enough people to get everything done. As an example, Salesforce volunteers came and cleaned out our storage space, which took a lot of time and grunt work. Through this process, it helped us know what we needed to get rid of, and how to better utilize the storage space, which is always something we run out of. This may seem basic, but it’s a crucial part of running a school efficiently.

Salesforce volunteers have helped us with our participation in the national Hour of Code, our girl’s robotics club, and podcasting club. Not only are they helping the students with their projects, they’re sharing how they got into their careers and providing advice to them. These interactions are invaluable to our students.

Volunteers have stepped in to be an extra arm for us in getting the work done to run this school, and our students have benefited by having a much more enriched educational experience.

On top of all the time and energy the Salesforce volunteers put in, Elizabeth Pinkham, the Executive Director of Global Real Estate, asked us what big wish list item we wanted. After witnessing the crowded chaos due to the inadequate lockers in the hallways, she generously offered to raise funds to provide us with new lockers. As with most construction projects, costs were higher than originally anticipated. Even after the initial, very generous support, Ms. Pinkham’s team raised further funds to cover the unanticipated costs.

In your tenure, what have been some of the biggest technological changes you’ve seen?

Our students are now able to access information that they couldn’t have before, and teachers can present and use information in much more compelling ways. There are so many new benefits that weren’t available ten years ago.

What are you excited about this school year?

This year, I’m excited to use the Principal’s Innovation Fund to hire a literacy coach to support my teachers in improving their practice in differentiating instruction, and to equip them with skills for readers/writers workshops and a comprehensive approach to literacy.


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