“Warm and welcoming” aren’t words typically used to describe Silicon Valley, with its cutthroat and competitive atmosphere. But they are words used to describe Los Altos High School’s new principal, Tracey Runeare, who’s going into the school year with a positive spirit and passion for equity.
After nearly two decades, Los Altos High School has a new principal. Formerly the principal of Harbor High School in Santa Cruz, Runeare took the reins from former principal Wynne Satterwhite this year.
Going into the school year, Runeare said she wants to prioritize understanding how the school runs and learning the school’s culture.
“I’m mostly observing what’s going on right now and asking questions,” Runeare said. “[I’m] just helping focus on the work that … the staff have identified as things that they would like to improve and I see myself as a support for that work.”
Asking questions is one of Runeare’s greatest strengths, according to Assistant Principal Nicolás Betancur. He said he appreciates her efforts to respect staff and student traditions as a new administrator at the school.
For instance, staff usually make time before meetings to share good news from their personal lives, and Runeare could have removed that tradition to make meetings more efficient. Instead, Betancur said, she made an effort to preserve it, showing her dedication to prioritizing staff and student wants.
“She was asking questions like, ‘What is important to the staff? What are things that are meaningful to the school?’” Betancur said. “But at the same time, [she’s] also asking really good questions about why we do certain things.”
Runeare said her vision for the school stems from her own unsatisfactory high school experience. She found a safe space in her school’s marching band, but otherwise described herself as a “mediocre student” who didn’t enjoy her high school years.
College, however, was a much better experience. According to Runeare, becoming a better student helped her realize she wanted to pursue a career in education and help high school students have better experiences than she did. Many of the changes Runeare plans to make, therefore, revolve around one central goal: creating a more equitable and inclusive space at school.
“The only place I really felt like I belonged was in band … in a lot of other spaces, I felt like an outsider,” Runeare said. “I think that has influenced how I think about all the different programs in school. … How can we make every place feel like that for students? Like they’re welcome in those spaces and that they have a place?”
Runeare said she’s working to identify potential barriers to accessing resources, but she emphasized that she’s not looking to drastically change anything about the school, which she believes is already thriving.
“The perception of the school is that it’s a school that’s worked really well,” Assistant Principal Derek Miyahara said. “People work hard here to do very good work. So I don’t think she came in in order to make big changes.”
Because of Los Altos’s current state, many of Runeare’s changes around the school have been to small details, but still, these little changes can make all the difference, Betancur said.
Take, for example, the alphasort system that was used in previous years to assign students to an assistant principal.
“Right off the bat, [Runeare was] like, ‘Can we all agree that that’s confusing?’” Betancur said.
With Runeare’s help, the administrative team made the decision to assign one grade level to each assistant principal in an effort to reduce confusion for students. This small change is just one example of how Runeare is helping rethink Los Altos High’s systems, making them easier to understand and navigate.
“One of the things that I do to try to achieve equity for students is to look at the systems that we have in place, make sure that we aren’t actually creating inequity with some of our policies,” Runeare said.
Miyahara was a Social Studies teacher at Los Altos High for 19 years before becoming assistant principal this year. To him, a particularly impactful example of Runeare’s focus on equity is Runeare’s changes to the way the school handles unpaid bills.
“In the past, when students came on their first day, they’d get a schedule, but if they had a bill, they wouldn’t get a schedule,” Miyahara said. “This year, [Runeare] said we’re not going to do that … because we want the students in the class on the first day, when they’re doing community building exercises in class, and I think a lot of people really appreciated that.”
Runeare is also keeping a close eye on how student activities are priced — just like she previously did at Harbor High School.
“At the school I was at, we took away test fees for Advanced Placement and for International Baccalaureate tests and the school paid for all of the exams for students,” Runeare said. “You have to look really closely at your budget and see where money is being spent.”
Similarly, Betancur said that with Runeare’s guidance, administration has been rethinking the pricing of student events, such as the homecoming dance.
“We’re both really interested in lowering the price for events,” Betancur said. “We’re not here to make money, and so why are we charging as much as we’re charging?”
Runeare described herself as warm and welcoming — the same values she wishes to instill upon Los Altos High. Part of that, she said, means emphasizing collaboration in her work with staff.
“She creates the space for people to share what they think,” Betancur said. “If you’re too quiet at a meeting, she will [say] ‘Okay, what do you think about this?’ She won’t let you not share your perspective. And then she really encourages the group to come to a consensus.”
This applies to students and parents as well; Runeare said she hopes everyone feels comfortable coming to her with concerns or suggestions. This trust is necessary, she said, to create a positive environment.
Aside from having and promoting a collaborative spirit, Runeare also radiates positivity, Miyahara said. Although working in administration is stressful, Betancur said Runeare manages to strike the right balance between work and enjoyment.
“Somehow, when things go wrong, she’s always able to kind of put a positive spin on it,” Miyahara said. “We make a mistake, and she’s like, ‘Well, at least we’re not gonna make that mistake again.’”
Runeare’s goal for Los Altos High is to create an equitable space — a space in which everyone, regardless of their background, feels welcome — just like the space she found in band class in high school. At the same time, she acknowledges the work that has already been done, and said she’s proud to lead a school that’s already so polished.
“I have the utmost respect for Wynne Satterwhite, who was the principal for so many years before me, and the work that she did at Los Altos High to make it a place where I could walk in and not have to make a whole bunch of changes,” Runeare said. “It’s a school that’s in a really good place.”