John Green Elementary School Principal Joe Romagna’s Journey from Radio to the Classroom and Beyond
Careers can be a funny thing. While it seems that some people are almost “preordained” to become physicians, architects or attorneys, for many (or most) their career finds them. Under that subtext, OneDublin.org recently had the opportunity to sit down with the newly minted Principal at John Green Elementary School, Joe Romagna. Mr. Romangna’s name should ring with familiarity as he had previously taught 5th grade at Green and also served as a Vice Principal at Dublin Elementary School. But the journey to his destination is fascinating and is filled some twists and turns. Further, it is an illustration of how difficult it is to be a classroom teacher – regardless of how well you perform your duties.
Joe grew up in the South Bay and graduated from Homestead High School. Subsequently, he enrolled at the College of San Mateo where he attained his A.A. in Radio Broadcasting. However, his educational path was largely influenced by his grandparents. They were immigrants from Italy and had completed only a minimal level of education. However, through hard work, they chiseled out successful lives in the United States. But, they impressed upon Joe the importance of education. Thus, he became the first person in his expanded family to graduate from a four-year university.
Subsequent to CSM, he completed a B.A. in Broadcasting and Electronic Communications at San Francisco State University. While he may have dreamed of leading/working with students someday, the lure to broadcasting was irresistible. Through his passion and guile, he landed as an On Air Talent at 960 AM KABL/San Francisco in 1997. During this time, he worked with some Bay Area radio legends Jim Lange and Carter B. Smith and then ultimately landed his own time slot – spinning classics and swing tunes. It was almost surreal. But, as in many media industries, the station was sold and the format was changed. He quickly followed his heart and managed special events for the Humane Society Silicon Valley for two years. All the while, the teaching bug was still tugging. Without hesitation, he attained a Multiple Subject Teaching credential from California State University East Bay (CSUEB) in 2006.
This is where the difficult reality of training to become a teacher meets reality. He initiated his classroom teaching experience at Fairlands Elementary School in Pleasanton. The economic downturn was just beginning and it truly hit its peak in 2008. Educators at the bottom end of the tenure ladder were constantly in a state of flux and would be first in line for pink slips. Thus, he subsequently moved on to San Ramon at Live Oak Elementary and then to Dublin at Green Elementary – consistently working as a fifth grade teacher. A portion of this time was spent as a Teacher on Special Assignment at Dublin Elementary. It was not the easiest of times for his family. Mr. Romagna is married to Colleen and they are parents to Emilia (8), Anthony (6) and Francesca (3). Yet, the family’s journey would ultimately take a magical turn.
OneDublin.org: You enjoyed a previous career in the radio broadcasting industry. How did this come about and was this a long time goal of yours?
Joe Romagna: “Growing up, I had wanted to be a teacher. In fact, my original intention was to attend San Diego State and obtain my BA and teaching credential. However, growing up I had been listening to tapes of my late Uncle who had worked in local radio for a brief time. His life and career always intrigued me. My senior year at Homestead high school, a position opened up to do the morning announcements. The original intention of the principal was to read a copy of the lunch menu into what looked like a CB radio mic. I jumped at it. My friend and I co-hosted a two to five minute broadcast to the high school campus with segments ranging from, yes, what was on the lunch menu, to sports reports, to having my grandmother provide a recap of the mini-series that had aired the night before. We were in heaven. I decided I wanted to do ‘this’ for a living.”
OneDublin.org: What was the trigger point in shifting your career in the direction of education? Please describe the allure of teaching young students.
Romagna: “Like I said earlier, there was always a thought that I might work in education. I remember two teachers in high school, Mr. Halstead and Mr. Ferintinos really inspired me. They allowed students to sit where ever they wanted, and had real, meaningful conversations (not just lectures). It really spoke to me as a student that they were much older, but willing to treat us as people. However, relating to the specific shift to education. It happened as I was in radio. I don’t like to be stuck behind a desk for too long. I like to be innovative and creative… and to work with people. A lot of radio is voice recorded these days. It saves money. I felt that was stifling. I decided to change paths and give back, and took on a job at the Humane Society in Santa Clara. They needed someone to help them as Manager of Special Events as they were in the middle of a capital campaign to build a new facility (Which, if you ever have the chance to see it in Milpitas, is well worth it).
“While there, a colleague was in a bind and asked if I would give a tour to a group of elementary school children. I agreed… and absolutely loved it! The kids were so excited to see the animals. They asked very intelligent questions. Many of them had aspirations to be veterinarians. The energy they brought to the building was noticeable. I found myself looking forward to the tours. Next thing I know, I was doing all sorts of tours… schools, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts… you name it! I came home from work and told my wife, I think I know what I am supposed to do.”
OneDublin.org: Prior to attaining this position, you had worked in the classroom for seven years in the Tri-Valley. Yet, your former John Green colleague and current Dublin Elementary School Principal Lauren McGovern had a significant influence on your migration to working in administration. Please explain.
Romagna: “Lauren is honestly like a sister to me. My wife and I joke that we have adopted her into our family. From the very beginning of our working relationship at John Green, there was just an immediate sense of trust. This is why it’s so important to have a successful grade level team. We don’t always see things the same way, but we found that was in fact what made our collaboration together so successful.
“When Lauren was announced as Principal at Dublin Elementary, all of us at Green were so proud of her. We could see the leadership skills in her and knew she would make an excellent principal. Shortly after her announcement, Lauren approached me and said, “I am going to need a Teacher on Special Assignment… you know, a VP. I think you’d be perfect. You’ve got great leadership skills” I laughed it off… but she was dead serious. She asked me to think about it. I went home and talked to my wife about it. My wife immediately agreed with Lauren. For me, it took more time. I was happy in the classroom and really didn’t have any intention in the near future of going into administration. However, after giving it some serious thought, I decided to go for it. I knew these opportunities were few and far between.”
OneDublin.org: Your predecessor, Keith Nomura, recently retired and you made reference to his lasting legacy. However, it will now be your responsibility to guide Green Elementary this year and into the future. Please share some of the philosophies and aspirations that you have for your school site.
Romagna: “I have to say that Keith has really left some big shoes to fill… did you see his going away party? He played the drums, sang, gave a heartfelt speech. People came up to me and asked, “So, what do you do?” In all sincerity, Keith’s vision… our district’s vision, is reaching every student and preparing them for service, college, or career pathways. I think that is not just lip service, but our clear goal. I have kids of my own, and I treat the students at school as if they were my own. I want the best teachers, the best curriculum, and the best opportunities for them.
“As a teacher, I felt it was essential to make real world connections with my students. When I was teaching the geometric concept of area, my students and I were shopping for tile at Lowe’s. It has to be real. Further, we need to change the way we are teaching… collaboration and technology need to be embedded in the learning. That’s what is happening in college, career, and service! I have friends that work in the tech sector and tell me about how they collaborate with their team around the globe. Gone are the days of, “Let’s take a walk to the computer lab…” The technology is now a tool, similar to a pencil or pen, for kids in the modern classroom. We need to now teach students how to discern and critique data. Is this a reliable source? Student Engagement is also up there for me. I think that is product of real world applications, embedded technology, and collaboration. Students need to have that same excitement, passion, and love for learning in 5th grade as they do in Kindergarten.”
OneDublin.org: For many families, the concept of Common Core Standards (CCS) remains a mystery. Kindly elaborate on how you think the implementation of CCS will ultimately benefit students. Even more specifically, how might CCS help to develop those in primary education before they reach middle or high school?
Romagna: “Change is always difficult. Daylight savings time is very difficult at my house. So, the idea of restructuring curriculum on this scale is monumental to me. With that said, the idea of having students working in thematic units of study excites me. I go back to my previous answer to address this. With Common Core I see an increase in student engagement. Picture walking into a classroom and seeing students working collaboratively, in project based, real world scenarios. For example, the students learning about history as they analyze multi-media: video, pictures, data, songs, and literature from the past. Them Using Google Documents to work with partners to create a presentation that shows their depth of knowledge on the particular unit of study. You contrast that with the idea of someone standing in front of the classroom reciting notes… I know which classroom I would want to be in! This isn’t anything that is going to happen overnight. However, I give credit to our teachers. A lot has been accomplished in a short time. Students from John Green will be entering Fallon able to analyze data, collaborate in teams, present and share their thinking, and be energized to continue learning.”
Earlier, we made reference to the working relationship between Joe and Lauren McGovern. Ms. McGovern was working in a similar classroom teaching capacity when the opportunity opened up for leadership at Dublin Elementary School. With an enrollment that was continuing to grow, she welcomed Mr. Romagna as a Teacher on Special Assignment (TSA) to help manage this growth. OneDublin.org offered Ms. McGovern an opportunity to offer her thoughts on Joe’s recent elevation.
OneDublin.org: You were both 5th grade teaching colleagues at Green Elementary School. What made you think that Joe might one day become an effective administrator?
Lauren McGovern: “Mr. Romagna and I began working together in 2010 as fifth grade teachers at Green Elementary School. We were members of a brand new PLC team. During one of our first team meetings, he and I had a lively debate about our philosophies of education. Each of us had very strong points of view, but that didn’t keep us from laughing at the end of the discussion. I remember thinking here is a colleague who is honest, committed to providing children with rich, purposeful learning experiences, not afraid to take risks, and at the end of the day he maintains a sense of humor. Over the course of the year, Mr. Romagna established a strong rapport with students, staff, and families. People found him approachable, trustworthy, dedicated, and knowledgeable. His commitment to children and their educations was evident.”
OneDublin.org: As DUSD continues to embrace the principles of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) and collaboration days have been increased, how do you see the “bar being raised” in terms evaluating the effectiveness of increased teacher collaboration time?
McGovern: “This year, the Dublin Unified School District is revisiting its Professional Learning Community practices. With the introduction of Common Core, our teachers have done an amazing job determining the essential standards and skills that children need to learn to become college and career ready. Given these goals, they are using collaboration time to establish a shared knowledge and skill-base with specific targets and measures for analyzing student achievement. Because we are now using a new state assessment to monitor student progress, children are required to provide multiple methods of problem-solving, written explanations, and a synthesis from multiple resources. This increase in rigor and depth of knowledge has definitely raised the bar in the evaluation of our instructional practices. As administrators it is important that we join these collaborations, seek resources, listen to the needs of our staff and students, and assist teachers in communicating these updates to the parent community.”
OneDublin.org: As an experienced site Principal, what words of wisdom would you share with Mr. Romagna as he embarks upon his first year at Green?
McGovern: “Going into my third year as a principal, I still have a lot to learn. I look forward to collaborating with Mr. Romagna, my principal colleagues, and my staff again. We value honesty, solution-based problem-solving, two-way dialogue, and the adherence to a warm, welcoming, and safe learning community. Green Elementary is very lucky to have Mr. Romagna as their leader. He will give 110%, advocate for your children, continue Mr. Nomura’s legacy of a strong and supportive learning community, and he will make you laugh. He loves what he does and I wish him the best!”
So, the journey travels from behind the microphone, to standing in front of a class of students to leading an entire school site in a high growth/achievement community. Surely, this is how Joe envisioned it as an undergraduate working college radio at the College of San Mateo. OneDublin.org would like to thank Mr. Romagna and Ms. McGovern for sharing their insights in constructing this profile. The first day of the 2014/15 school year is Thursday, August 27th.