Ray Huard … For Breeze Hill Elementary School Principal Lori Higley, “those lightbulb moments” are what makes her profession special.
The best part is “seeing that light bulb go on” when a student understands something.
It took Higley a few false starts, working as a dental assistant and in a law office, before she found the career she loves.
“After much thought, I decided I wanted to become a teacher, to hopefully encourage and inspire future generations,” Higley said. “Teaching is one of those special professions, where you are constantly working with children and their families on a daily basis.”
She’d worked as a dental assistant and in a law office first, but with her appointment as Breeze Hill principal, she’s back to where she started, where she found her calling.
Breeze Hill is where Higley got her first teaching job in 1996, and where she stayed for 10 years, teaching kindergarten and first grade.
As principal, Higley sees many of her former students, now as parents, with children of their own coming to the same classrooms in which Higley taught.
“It’s kind of scary, but cool too,” Higley said.
In many ways, the school is much the same as when she left it.
The student population has grown slightly, with an enrolment of about 800 students, about 30 percent of whom are English learners.
But many of the teachers who were there when Higley started teaching remain.
“It’s kind of a special place. I don’t want to leave,” said Sandy Piperato, a second grade teacher who’s been at Breeze Hill since 1994.
“It’s our home away from home,” said Laura Blackwell, a second grade teacher who’s been at Breeze Hill for 21 years, adding that, “I really feel like it’s a family environment.”
“There’s a group of us that do things outside of school together,” Blackwell said. “There’s groups that go on vacations together. We know that we all care about each other and the kids. We trust each other.”
Higley’s appointment as Breeze Hill’s principal was celebrated by many of her former teaching colleagues who saw it as of one of their own making good.
“We were all so excited because she really represents and does what’s best for kids. That’s always at the heart of every conversation she has,” Piperato said. “She’s just grown over the years. It’s just been amazing to watch.”
Higley left Breeze Hill in 2004 to become a literacy coach at Grapevine Elementary until 2007, when she moved on to become a reading and literacy coach, training other teachers in the district. She returned to Breeze Hill in 2013 and served as assistant principal before becoming principal.
“She has mentored so many people at our school,” Piperato said. “You can’t help but be sucked in by her enthusiasm. She’s been that way since she stepped on campus day one – bubbly, enthusiastic.”
Joining Higley this year as Breeze Hill’s assistant principal was Letty Cimino, who also has a history at Breeze Hill as a former resource teacher training other teachers at the school.
The two make a strong pair, Piperato said.
“I call them the dynamic duo, because they really are powerful together,” Piperato said.
Like Higley, Cimino initial career choice wasn’t teaching.
“I originally wanted to be a marine biologist,” Cimino said. “I taught classes at SeaWorld, and that’s what sparked my interest in actually becoming a teacher.”
Cementing her career choice was a stint practice teaching at Mission Elementary School in Oceanside.
“I was taking a marine biology class at Mira Costa (College) and was told for my final, to go teach at an elementary school,” Cimino said. “That was the confirmation for me, so I changed my major from a science major to liberal arts with a teaching credential.”
Cimino said that her job, “first and foremost,” is “to support my principal with the mission and vision for the school, which is that we are becoming an AVID (Advancement in Individual Determination) elementary school.”
Started by a San Diego High School teacher in 1980, AVID uses teaching practices to get students thinking about college, especially those who come from backgrounds where college wasn’t considered an option.
Students learn how to take effective notes, organize their work, and collaborate with each other.
“It gives them a step up,” Higley said.
In addition to establishing Breeze Hill as an AVID school, Higley said, “My number one goal is literacy.”
“We have to get these kids reading,” Higley said. “If you can’t read or write, your life is going to be much harder.”
Underlying everything at Breeze Hill is a culture centered on what Higley said are five pillars, as described in the book, How to Create a Culture of Achievement, by Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey and Ian Pumplan. They are “welcome, do no harm, choice words, never too late to learn, best school in the universe.”
“One of the things we’re super proud of is, we practice these things every day,” Higley said. “We will be and we are the best school in the universe.”