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Year 1 at ECHS: Blueprint for the Future

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

By Rebecca Gigi

“If you were to ask anybody what was special about El Camino, it was that they were innovators,” says Robert Keropian, the first principal of El Camino. Built on land that was once a duck farm in 1961, Keropian and community members built the school from the ground up and helped make El Camino known worldwide as one of the top schools in the nation at the time.

In order to lessen the overcrowding at South San Francisco High School with 2,200 students and double session shifts at 7:30 then at 10:30 a.m. “Camino Real”, the school’s original name, was built to accommodate 1,500 students. From the steel framework to picking the mascot, Keropian had a say in what El Camino was going to be like from the very start. He looked to community members and parents and asked what they wanted from their new school.

Twice a week for the first year, Keropian met with parents for coffee and tea where they helped develop  rules, philosophy, and curriculum. Structure, safety and athletics were some of the top priorities for parents but one thing that kept coming up is that should El Camino become known for its unique take on education.

Keropian met with business leaders and the South San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and invited them to become associate faculty members who taught in classrooms and vocational counseling for students. Students were regularly treated with “master-classes” from experts in numerous job areas, something quite unique for that time.

Keropian set out on a mission to find the best teachers in the country to help teach his future students. Flying to Arizona one week and Washington the next, Keropian recruited a brand new faculty, looking for those who would, “care more about their students than the subject they were teaching.” Keropian recruited people like Tom McCormick, former Green Bay Packers coach for the as head football coach, the world’s decathlon champion as a history teacher, and a high jump champion in the business department. When selecting his first faculty Keropian admits, “My opportunity [as principal] was different; I didn’t inherit any faculty, so I had an unfair advantage.”

In rare weather, it snowed on the first day El Camino opened in 1962. In addition, students from South City took ducks from the nearby cemetery and set them loose in El Camino’s pool in reference to El Camino’s history of being a duck farm. Not everything was there waiting for the first class of incoming ninth and tenth graders; El Camino was not the school we know today. The school was built in two phases. During the first year, only the cafeteria, academic building, science building, main office, and the locker rooms were finished. The next year, students were able to use the gym, industrial arts building, and Little Theater as they were completed.

The Little Theater was intended to be a particularly special element of the school. The initial plan for the theater was for it to be a circular shape with a rotating stage and small intimate setting of about 500 seats, unlike South City’s 1,500 seat theater. The theater was also intended to be available for the city to use for other events. But when the bids came in for the unique theater, they were too high for the existing budget, so Keropian was forced to downsize, resulting in the theater that exists today.

“We didn’t want El Camino to be like other schools. We wanted to be different with a lot of innovations,” Keropian said.

El Camino received national recognition in its opening years and faculty from schools from all over the world wanted to see what the fuss was about at El Camino. Professors from places like Moscow and Germany visited for one year to experience the high spirited atmosphere and teaching at EC while attending seminars Keropian created for them. With the publicity also came heavy criticism especially towards Keropian’s more controversial methods. Being sued for the school dress code and lobbying to change laws in Sacramento so students could go on trips around the world were just some of the hardships Keropian overcame.

“I told the Superintendent and School Board, ‘Let me coach my own team at El Camino, and if you don’t like me get rid of me,” Keropian said.

For 30 years, Keropian was principal, leading the school to school spirit awards, a 99 percent graduation rate, and groundbreaking two-hour lab classes, El Camino set the standard high for other schools to follow for many years to come.

“It makes so much sense that we’re all in the huddle at El Camino and that we’re doing this together in the end,” Keropian said.

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