Muirlands Middle School principal begins new year in La Jolla

Harlan Klein passionate about building student character, technology education

Muirlands Middle School Principal Harlan Klein says he feels fortunate to be leading a school where parents, faculty and the community are deeply engaged in students’ learning.

Klein took the reins from former principal Chris Hargrave March 25, spending his first few months meeting with students and faculty, and getting to know the school community.

“The students really take responsibility for their learning,” enthused Klein, who graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz with a double major in economics and environmental studies. “They care deeply about their academic grades and citizenship (and are) motivated by their performance. … It’s a campus anybody could feel proud of.”

Nevertheless, as he begins his first full school year in La Jolla, Klein said he’s eager to put his stamp on Muirlands, ramping up character development and 21st century skills.

“Those are two things I’m really, really passionate about,” said Klein, who for nearly a decade has served on the board of directors for University of San Diego’s Character Development Center, as well as with San Diego Unified School District’s “Learning on the Go” program, which supplies middle school students with wireless netbook computers for school and home use.

Klein said he hopes to add new elective courses for students in seventh and eighth grades that are in line with the Gateway to Technology program, part of Project Lead the Way, a national K-12 organization providing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula. Among Gateway to Technology’s pre-engineering electives for middle-schoolers are: Automation and Robotics, Design and Modeling, Energy and the Environment, Flight and Space and Green Architecture.

Because such courses work best when the instruction continues into high school, Klein said he has been meeting with La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky to build a stronger bridge for students between middle and high school. Klein and Podhorsky also plan to have their staffs and departments meet and collaborate on specific learning goals, which Klein said has not happened in several years.

Klein said he was heartened to learn that La Jolla schools have such a strong focus on STEM education (as well as the arts). He plans to host a STEM-based career fair on campus in March.

“All the research I’ve done suggests that that’s where the jobs are going to be,” he said. “The competition is dramatic in those areas, so putting emphasis on STEM is something that I think will prepare students to be thinking about jobs and opportunities that may not exist yet, or that they might not have considered.”

A former principal at Clairemont’s Toler Elementary School and, most recently, Innovation Middle School (a publically-funded, seventh- and eighth-grade charter school focused on technology education), Klein said he welcomes the challenge of leading Muirlands, which has about 1,050 students enrolled this semester — more than double that of Innovation, plus an additional grade level.

Klein said it was a difficult decision to leave Innovation earlier this year. “I put my heart and soul into opening (that school), hiring the entire staff and building that program; it was kind of like an independent, mom-and-pop type business … something that I really believed in and worked hard to build,” he said. “I’ve been very selective my entire career about where I wanted to be and where I thought I could add value. I saw Muirlands as a school that already had a great reputation and a lot of positive things going, but I saw that there were things that I could contribute to improve the school.”

Klein said he wants to continue the collaborative environment between educators fostered under Hargrave’s tenure, where teachers model themselves as lifelong learners through professional development.

Klein also wants to see teachers move from traditional, by rote lecture-type instruction to a Common Core Standards model by which teachers pose questions that require students to form opinions, take stances and evaluate and critique their thinking, as well that of their peers

“We call that ‘collaborative conversations,’ and it’s a requirement,” Klein said. “So, a student can’t be successful in a class by sitting quiet, being passive and absorbing information. Students need to be contributing to discussions, defending their thinking and revising their thinking based on the thinking and sharing of others. … It’s an expectation of this campus and a part of their whole grading process. … The majority of the speaking should be coming directly from them. … It’s their learning environment. That requires real explicit planning and pacing by the teachers, knowing what type of questions to ask.”

As a result of engaging in an educational dialogue with their peers, he said, students become more invested in their education, often exceeding established expectations.

“The sense of (having an) audience does force students to improve the quality of their work,” said Klein, who began his teaching career as an outdoor educator in Veronia, Oregon, later going back to earn his teaching credential. He landed his first job in the San Diego Unified School District 15 years ago, as a teacher at Spreckels Elementary School in UTC.

With a goal of being both hands-on and accessible, Klein said he tries to spend three hours of his day in the classroom with teachers and students.

“The best part of any principal’s job is being where the students are,” he said. “Quite often if I am doing e-mail a portion of the day I’m likely to take my laptop and position myself in a classroom or multiple classrooms,” he said.

A North County resident, Klein and his wife have a 5-year-old son and are expecting their second child in January. As such, he said he’s encouraging his staff and teachers to maintain a healthy balance between their work and professional lives. “I (respond to) e-mail all the way up to midnight, one in the morning. I don’t like to fall behind,” he said. “But now I’m trying to also have balance in my life. … Having my own child actually forced me to not be a workaholic and to have boundaries.”

Asked what a student should know if they ever find themselves in the unfortunate position of being sent to Muirlands’ chief disciplinarian, Klein laughed.

“First of all, be honest. If you made a mistake, admit it, take responsibility and we’ll learn from that mistake,” he said. “I’m very much interested in second and third chances and I want to teach students how to take responsibility and make the right decisions, and I will reinforce the idea of choices.”