By Matthew Wood
It’s the middle of summer and the halls of Ocean Beach Elementary School are desolate.
The kids are long gone, having hit the beach or camp or family vacation and otherwise soaking in the three-month summer break. Teachers have been dismissed to recharge for a few student-less months.
Yet here’s principal Marco Drapeau, sitting at his desk, sifting diligently through paperwork as the rest of the world around him goofs off.
“It’s just me and the custodians,” he jokes, his words nearly echoing through the empty halls.
Drapeau explains that principals don’t have much of a summer break – at least, not like the one everyone else in school gets. He’ll be at OB Elementary until the middle of July, “and then three weeks later, we start right back up again” in August.
With the chaos of the school year behind him, Drapeau had a chance to sit down with me and assess his first year at the school.
It was almost exactly a year ago that he found out he would be the new principal at OB Elementary, something he refers to as more or less a dream job. He never gave it much thought, even after talking to longtime principal Margaret Johnson a few years back.
“She let me know she worked at OB and thought that it would be a great place for me,” he said. Still, he was happy with his vice principal position at Pacific Beach Middle School, where he had served seven years.
Then, last summer, a rare influx of principal jobs opened.
“There were 40 principal openings in the district last year,” he said. “That’s pretty rare. That’s not normal.”
It included Johnson’s announcement that she was leaving OB Elementary.
“Ocean Beach was at the top of the list,” Drapeau said. “I decided I didn’t want to just throw my name in the ring just to throw my name into the ring. But I really wanted OB.”
When the time came for the school board to announce the principal appointments, Drapeau was downstairs with his kids.
“I didn’t watch because I was thinking, ‘Oh man, they’re going to pick someone else,’” he recalls. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up for OB. When my wife heard the announcement, she said, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I was just … so happy.”
Drapeau is a lifelong San Diegan. Growing up in Lemon Grove, he found OB at a relatively early age.
“When I started driving, I asked my dad, ‘What’s the closest beach?’” Drapeau recalls. “He said, ‘Go to Ocean Beach.’ I felt very at home here.”
He went to school at San Diego State and took a teaching job in the city after graduating. “I never left. I had no desire to live anywhere else.”
He taught elementary school for nine years before moving on to PB Middle School and now he’s at his “dream job” in OB.
“Ocean Beach is definitely a unique community in that it is inclusive and accepting,” he says. “If you’re not chasing after the American dream, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody following their heart is really accepted around here.”
He has fond memories of his sixth-grade teacher bringing a guitar to class and teaching students how to play and sing music.
“That really influenced me,” he said. “I still remember the songs we sang to this day.”
It’s something he wants to instill in today’s students.
“We have a really strong arts program. We want to tack on music to that,” he said. “We really value the arts. It’s not something you do at the end of the day if you have time. It’s embedded in our curriculum.”
One of the parents came to him with the idea of putting an instrument in every classroom, so he encouraged parents to donate guitars, ukuleles, whatever they could.
“I think it will really pay off,” he said, adding that they now have that goal of at least one instrument in every class.
While most schools in the area are coping with a district-wide mandate to cut staff, OB Elementary is actually adding a position. The reason is a 38 percent enrollment increase over the last five years. They are projected to have 500 students enrolled next year.
“For some reason, we had a particularly large kindergarten growth,” he explained. “It’s unusual, definitely unusual.”
So they will be adding a 19th position for the upcoming year. They will also be part of a pilot program for pre-kindergarten students starting this fall. This comes on top of a new statewide common core curriculum that focuses more on the learning process than just test results.
“The idea is for students to be able to speak on their learning,” he said. “It’s a focus on the process, not just the end product. It’s a shift in the way things are taught and, more importantly, a shift in what is learned.”
Dreapeau says he has full faith in his teachers to implement whatever is needed.
“We were re-evaluating a lot of what we do here to see if it’s working with a fresh set of eyes,” he said. “I learned a lot from watching the staff. One thing that really encourages me is how much the teachers know the kids. I can ask about any kid in the class and their teacher can talk to me about them for five, 10 minutes.”
He says that commitment has helped change the culture at the school, and even earned the school statewide recognition as they were given a California Distinguished School Award by the Department of Education.
“Ten years ago, it wasn’t really looked at as an academic school, whereas now I really think we are,” Drapeau said.
In the end, he says the goal is the same for everyone in the building: Prepare them for the next level of education.
“When students leave here, I’m very confident they are prepared for Dana Middle School,” he said. “It’s such a big task to get them ready.”
In just a few short weeks, they’ll begin to chase that goal once again.