Out of Africa


    Cynthia Gray knows how to make something from nothing. The new principal at Point Dume Marine Science elementary comes to Malibu from nearly seven years in Zimbabwe, where she served as director of the Harare International School. The 27-acre campus didn’t exist before she came along.

    In 1992, the U.S. State Department gave $35,000 in seed money for a new school in the capital formerly known as Salisbury. The grant specified that the administrator be American. Zimbabwe required the individual to possess experience in British teaching methods.

    Harare recruited its ideal candidate in Gray, a middle-school principal for the Mountain Empire School District near San Diego. Staffers were hired and 42 students enrolled the first year. Gray built the K-12 facility from scratch, erecting technology-equipped classrooms and an impressive library building. Enrollment rapidly grew to 300.

    That’s the number of students expected at PDMS next week. The Point Dume school opened in 1996 as a satellite of Juan Cabrillo and became an official campus the following year. Its new principal notes the administrative challenges inherent in launching any school.

    “It’s essential that all on the job site are working from the same blueprint,” says Gray. “Beyond the initial momentum, there is always a transitional, development phase. Once we built the facility (in Harare), expectations were that we be a fully established school with everything in place after just three years. People can lose sight of where they are on the timeline.

    “Parents are a larger factor here than even in Harare. Naturally, they become emotionally-involved and tend to dig out territory. I don’t know if there’s been enough guidance. To avoid hurt feelings, it’s important that each person be regarded as a valued member of the team.”

    Before receiving an administrative services credential from California State University at San Diego in 1990, Gray was an academic team member here and abroad for two decades.

    In 1976, the single parent moved her three young children to Asia, where she accepted a teaching position. Gray taught science and mathematics at secondary levels in Singapore, Athens and Lahore, Pakistan, before returning to California schools in 1986.

    Gray, who grew up in the Glendale area, was graduated from Pasadena High School. She holds a degree in psychology from UC Berkeley, a teaching credential from Hofstra University and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Western Michigan.

    PDMS is exactly where this principal wants to be. She credits Africa with the realization.

    “Harare was my first extended experience in elementary education,” says Gray. “Soon after I arrived, I began to think, ‘Where have I been all my career?’

    “So often when you are teaching high school students, you get there too late. ‘Why do I have to study science? I’m not going to become a scientist’ is the resistance you encounter. What I want to prevent is the closing down. Children are born totally open and curious, filled with the possibilities of life and the belief that the world is a fascinating place.”

    If Gray has her say, kids will hold on to those qualities.

    At Harare International, the principal notes that 75 per cent of students originate from cultures that publish national standards for education. She arrives at PDMS a month after California added comprehensive English language standards to its recent guidelines for math, science and social studies.

    “Accountability and education reform should not be mutually exclusive,” says Gray. “I have always expected lesson plans to see where instructors are going. But there is an incredible dichotomy between coverage of material and actual learning, where kids experience and process the material. You have to have a construct that makes it meaningful.”

    Gray believes in “multiple multiple measures” to determine progress. “We need to develop rubrics that will meaningfully assess student product. Do we create an obstacle course for students by judging them each step of the way, or are we here to educate every kid? If we panic teachers about accountability, we may create even greater sorters and labelers.”