Principal Chris Hertz Talks COVID-19, New School Identity and Motivating Students

Principal Chris Hertz with Malibu Elementary Students. 

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, Juan Cabrillo Elementary and Point Dume Marine Science Schools were combined into one school at the Point Dume campus. Rather than keep either of the old names, the school district elected to rename the K-5 public school as Malibu Elementary. Both schools had individual histories and traditions, and merging the two was a challenge for new school Principal Chris Hertz. 

Juan Cabrillo had existed for 64 years before the merger, schooling several generations of Malibu residents and employing some of the same teachers for decades. Point Dume elementary operated from 1968 to 1980 and from 1996 to 2019, developed a unique marine science program and lab, and officially became Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School. 

“Chris Hertz is the first principal of the new elementary school in Malibu,” Santa Monica Malibu United School District Superintendent Ben Drati announced before the start of the 2019-2020 school year. “He comes from our neighboring Beverly Hills Unified School District…bringing 25 years of educational experience to SMMUSD,” Drati noted that Hertz had served BHUSD since 2012 in several positions: Director of School Safety, Director of Student Services & Special Projects, and Director of Academic Excellence.

Prior to 2012, Hertz was a teacher, vice-principal, and elementary principal in the Pajaro Valley District near Santa Cruz. He holds a B.A. in American Studies from U.C. -Santa Cruz and a Master’s in Education Administration from National University. 

The Malibu Times Q&A with Hertz:

Q. What was your greatest challenge in merging the two elementary schools?

It was helping adults recognize that we were an all-new school. No tradition was going to be automatically adopted. The traditions we did adopt were not wholly known to all the staff or parents, nor me, as I was new to the community. With such a rich opportunity to adopt traditions we have, at times, felt we were spread too thin and couldn’t do all the actions we hoped to. There are only so many days in a school year, only so many faculty meetings, and only so many hours in a day. In the end, the staff has been prudent about not overdoing it, and I feel we have a good rhythm now.  

Q. How did you identify which of the traditions and practices from each elementary school were the best, and how did you merge them together into this one school?

Staff from each school used charts to list their traditions. We prioritized them and then incorporated them into action plans and calendars, which became agendas. Agendas reinforce our shared priorities. In addition, our PTA developed new activities, borrowing from both of our founding schools. Our Site Council adopted all new by-laws, adopted a new school achievement plan, and a new Safety Plan.  

Q. Were there any problems with the Juan Cabrillo students adjusting to a new school building and location?

Adults anticipated challenges, but the students were amazingly excited to have a larger peer group and a fresh school experience. There really were no problems, and with time, the students showed the adults what resilience means.  

Q. Aren’t class sizes now larger than when there were two separate schools? How is that going?

Due to generous staffing ratios from Human Resources, MES is averaging about 17 students per teacher. In my 29 year career, I have never enjoyed smaller classes than I am now.  

Q. How did the distance learning during COVID affect your faculty and students? Do you see any declines in student performance? How did you try to keep the students motivated?

Distance Learning was very difficult at first; everyone struggled. Staff studied what other schools were doing; we purchased a lot of laptops and learned about Zoom. Students learned how to convert portions of their homes into personal classrooms and put examples of their work up around them. With time, everyone began to feel a sense of accomplishment through perseverance and success. To maintain community and motivation, students daily participated in community-building activities while isolated at home. We sent home paper and pencil activities weekly to balance all the screen time. We were very pleased to see that due to this diligence, MES students did not show a learning loss as a whole. Of course, there were exceptions and even some students who appeared to thrive more than before.  

Q. Do you know of any other elementary schools in the U.S. that emphasize marine science?

MES is a unique school in that I am unaware of any other elementary school with a dedicated Marine Science teacher. Of course, many schools participate in ocean ecology activities, but nothing as sustained as us.  

Q. Do you think a new or hybrid school identity has been achieved yet? If not, what’s the identity you’re working towards?  

Yes, we are Malibu Elementary. We are “West Malibu.” Our parents have developed close ties, our students have developed good friends, and our faculty trusts one another and works very well together.