Damien Phillips never expected to be a school principal less than two years into his profession as an administrator. However, his acceptance into Brandman’s educational doctoral program has given Phillips the nudge he and his school district needed in order to chart a new course for not only his career, but for the culture of Kings Community School in Hanford, California.
Kings Community School is an extension of the Court School Program designed to serve those youth who are unable to return to their school of residence upon release from the Juvenile Center. As students enter their learning environment they pass through metal detectors and are searched. Cameras record each students every move and the dress code is strictly enforced. Plain and simple, Kings Community School has the look and feel of a prison. Phillips describes the school, where he is a learning coordinator, “as kind of in trouble.” According to the 37-year old, students score lower on standardized tests AFTER they attend the school than they did BEFORE. In most cases, these at-risk kids might be ignored by the system, but not if Phillips has a say.
As part of Brandman’s educational doctoral program, cohorts are asked to design a transformational change project (TCP) and put it into practice. “I have seen what the consequences of not reaching these students in time can be,” said Phillips. “If you can get them right the first time it benefits everyone, but if you don’t, you deal with them punitively for a very long time. Therefore I have proposed eight separate changes that will improve the educational services we provide these students.” Phillips has proposed the hiring of two additional staff members so that students can receive the mental health and transitional services they need to assimilate back into the community. Other elements of the proposed plan include:
- WASC accreditation
- Provide college prep courses
- Offer on-site substance abuse counseling
- Develop a behavioral modification program
- Change the school schedule to one single distinct schedule.
Execution has been anything but smooth. “My transformational team consisted of four people including myself,” said Phillips. “The highest ranking two members of my group got into a disagreement and one of the members was forced out. A month later the other member quit. In addition the school principal and the long time secretary announced they were leaving at year’s end.” Kings Community School was in dire straits. Seizing on the opportunity, Phillips presented his TCP to the district superintendent. “The superintendent asked for my advice on naming a new principal,” said Phillips. “He even asked me if I should be considered, but I declined feeling I didn’t yet have enough experience.”
The impression Phillips and his TCP made on the superintendent became apparent when he was recently asked to lead the Kings County Office of Education’s special education school. “I was blown away,” admitted Phillips. “I was told that I was getting this position because of the leadership skills that I had shown, but mostly because of the forward thinking that my TCP led me to. I was told that what makes a good leader is not knowing how to manage a budget or hire a team, those things can be taught. But what makes a good leader is being able to put a plan together.”
Starting this fall Phillips will become principal of Shelly Baird, the district’s special education school. Not what he expected when he was called into the human resources department and told his position as learning coordinator at Kings Community School would be eliminated. While Phillips will take over in a new role at Shelly Baird School, he will continue as a consultant to Kings Community School where his TCP is continuing to be executed.
Special education has always been what drives Phillips. Upon graduating from UC Santa Barbara, he spent the first 5-years of his career as a police officer in Tulare, California working with juvenile first time offenders. “That’s what got me going on education, especially as it relates to difficult kids,” said Phillips.Phillips expects to finish classes at Brandman in August 2015 and then work on his dissertation which will focus on community schools in California and finding the link between money and time spent on mental health and how that relates to money and time spent on student discipline.“Most school counselors and therapists are cheaper than most school administrators. What I hope to prove is that when a school is forward thinking and invests in mental health it is not only good for the health of the students but will also save schools money. It would be a win-win for everyone, and I really want to remove every excuse from people who don't think mental health for troubled students is important.” said Phillips.