MODESTO -- My dad loved to tell the story of his first day as a freshman at Sonora High in 1948.
Wandering the halls in search of a classroom, he turned a corner and came face to face with the school's revered and iconic principal, Vernon Dunlavy.
"Aren't you Carl Jardine's boy?" Dunlavy asked.
"Uh-huh," my dad replied, his knees no doubt shaking.
"Well, I don't want half as much trouble from you as I had from him," Dunlavy said.
"Uh, yes, sir."
Dunlavy's 44-year career in education included 36 years as Sonora's principal, father figure and authoritarian. I suspect he greeted many other freshmen with a similar generational pre-emptive strike. He put them on notice that he knew their parents and their parents' parents. It gave him instant control.
Likewise in Modesto, where Thomas Downey ran Modesto High for 26 years. When the city's second high school opened in 1951, they named it in his honor. And Downey High's first principal, Milford Olson, stayed for two decades and also became a beloved figure in the community. They named the school's atrium after him a few years back.
These principals represented the kind of stability that once flourished in small towns which Sonora remains and Modesto once was. No more here, though. The Modesto City Schools district encompasses 33 campuses and, during Jim Enochs' long reign as superintendent, introduced what became known within the district as the "principal shuffle."
Virtually every year, more than just a few principals changed schools because Enochs never wanted them to get stale or too comfortable in their jobs.
The practice continues. Some are moved. Some opt to move. Some move into the district's hierarchy. Some retire. Some, as in the ongoing case of three high school principals and an elementary school principal, are pink-slipped.
Yes, there are exceptions. At Sonoma School, Jane Moffett is in her 11th year as principal. Diane Scott has been at Rose Avenue School for eight years and Carol Brooks at Martone School for seven.
"I've been able to build relationships with parents and staff," Moffett said. "I've also been a district team player. I don't depart from what the district has in mind in terms of education and discipline."
Other schools see principals come and go every couple of years.
Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able said she hopes to at least gear down the speed of the principal merry-go-round.
"We'll try, if it's a good match," she said. "Every site is different. It's like being mayor of your own little city. Students with different needs, faculty, facilities, budget. When it's the right fit, we'll leave it alone. If it's not broke, don't fix it."
Beginning, we can only presume, with the replacements for the four school principals out of work come the end of June.
Being a principal can be a difficult job. Program improvement demands quick turnarounds at schools where academic deficiencies developed over decades. Principals are responsible for getting their staff to teach the mandated curriculum, which is supposed to lead to better standardized test scores. Fair or not, districts hold principals accountable if they can't show marked progress almost immediately.
Most will agree that in Modesto or anywhere else, it takes three to four years on a campus to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the faculty and students and to implement necessary changes.
They work with parents who can range from supportive to combative even litigious to invisible.
As in any other profession, some principals simply aren't effective leaders and changes need to be made.
Conversely, when a principal is accessible, respected, liked and the school is improving, moving him or her can be counterproductive. It can be unsettling to the school community. The replacement must start anew, developing the culture and relationships needed to be effective, a three- to four-year learning curve again.
One Modesto educator (who didn't want to be identified) told me an elementary school principal ideally should stay at least long enough for a kindergartner to have the same principal until moving on to junior high seven years.
I called Rod Hollars, principal at Pitman High in Turlock since it opened in 2002 and at Turlock High for five years before that. I wanted his take on the value of longevity because, well, he has it.
"I can't imagine going into a campus knowing you were going to get only three or four years," he said. "Stability has to stand for something. It's not just about test scores. Your job as a high school principal is to ensure each kid has a positive overall experience, both curricular and extracurricular. You're just getting your sea legs after two or three years. You have to have time to establish yourself as part of the culture of the school."
Thomas Downey at Modesto, Milford Olson at Downey and Vernon Dunlavy at Sonora dictated the cultures at their respective schools.
You can do that when you can stick around for, say, two to four decades instead of two to four years.
A different era, indeed.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.