“People feel like they matter, the kids’ and parents’ voices are important,” he said. “We have a very strong parent organization that is very involved with the school.”
Adriaan described this sense of community using the term “ubuntu,” which he said boils down to “I am who I am because of you.”
“That is what actually guides my philosophy of life and the way I live my life,” he said. “Bringing that into the school, making sure everyone knows that no matter what your role, we all need each other to be a successful school.”
A childhood in apartheid
According to Adriaan, much of his educational and leadership approach is based on his experience growing up as a person of color in apartheid-era South Africa.
Born and bred into a racist and unequal system, Adriaan said his school curriculum was far inferior than what was taught in white schools. The buildings were also subpar, lacking air conditioning or sports fields.
“It was a complete difference,” he said.
Adriaan said he was fortunate enough to attend schools where teachers didn’t settle to just teach what was required by law, but went above and beyond. The South African native also grew up in a community where education was emphasized.
He noted that both of his parents were not educated beyond middle school, but wanted him to go further in his studies.
“My mom used to say, ‘they can tell you where to sit, where to eat, where to swim, but they can never take away what you know,’” Adriaan said. “Basically, education became my weapon against apartheid.”
Adriaan, who decided while in high school that he would become an educator, also became a lifelong learner. Last week, he received his eighth degree.
“I never, ever stopped. I will never stop,” he added. ”No one can take away what I know.”
As part of a quota system, Adriaan attended an all-white college, where he would break barriers as the first person of color to be elected student government president. He would later receive a full-ride scholarship for two more degrees.
The middle-school principal said it was during college that he was exposed to different cultures, and shed a lot of the stereotypical thoughts he had about others.
One life lessons he drew from his experience growing up was that rather than being a victim sitting in a corner and waiting for things to happen to him, he decided to “make it happen for myself.”
“I’ve used that as motivation to make me better,” he said. “I brought that with me into teaching and into my school leadership as a principal.”
Joy and dignity
Prior to his arrival at Academy of the City, Adriaan taught or led at other predominantly African-American or Latino schools, including KIPP in San Diego and Academia Avance in Los Angeles. After Hurricane Katrina, he founded a new charter school in New Orleans.
What makes the Woodside school different, he noted, is its diversity. Adriaan said Academy of the City has the most diverse student population he’s ever taught in.
“There is no better group of people together to teach acceptance, tolerance and understanding,” he said.
Last year, the middle school focused a great deal on teaching empathy and integrity to students. They learned how to differ and debate respectfully.
Adriaan also focuses on spreading what he calls the “J factor,” which is joy.
“There must be joy in how we teach and how students learn,” he said. “Because if there is no joy and if it’s boring, you’re going to lose the kids.”
He noted that Academy of the City is strongly aligned with social and emotional learning, but when he came in he tied it to restorative practices.
That means learning how to “discipline with dignity,” grappling with the obsession to punish and punitive consequences, and having conversations about how to make the situation better.
Principles of restorative practices include doing things with the students as opposed to doing it for them or to them, establishing a process of fairness, and not shaming students for their actions without understanding why they took those actions.
Adriaan added that he encourages teachers to have empathy and be aware of critical pedagogy in the classroom, including teaching with cultural relevance.
“I believe the ultimate ingredient in a successful education is relationships,” he said. “A student must feel cared for, believe they are trusted and, more than anything else, like they matter.
“Once that is established, learning just automatically happens,” Adriaan added. “Now they’re doing it for themselves, but they’re also doing it because they don’t want to let you down.”
Providing a choice for parents
Although he acknowledges the criticism of charter schools, Adriaan said charter schools provide a choice for parents to decide where their kids go. He noted that charter schools are public schools that are privately run.
While there are bad charter schools, he said Academy of the City doesn’t “cream,” a practice where schools only take the best students. The Woodside school has a lottery admissions system, so educators don’t know who the students are or what they are capable of.
Academy of the City also accepts a representative number of special education students, Adriaan said.
The principal noted that while they have an extended school day and a focus on academics, they also have a sports program and teach arts and music.
Adriaan said the school has a long waiting list, which he attributed to the reputation that has spread through word of mouth.
“People know this is a caring environment,” he said. “They know that there’s a balance.
“You’re not a test score, you are an individual human being with various potential and various artistic abilities,” Adriaan added. “We are open and allow you to grow all of those.”
Adjusting for COVID
As the upcoming school year approaches, Academy for the City has done research and reached out for input from parents and teachers. The school has conducted two surveys of teachers to see where they are in terms of coming back into the school building.
They also want to hear from parents how they feel about sending their kids to school, keeping them at home or a blended learning model.
Right now, the prevailing thought is to have remote learning for the first quarter while also considering the needs of families. Parents who want to send their kids to school so they can go to work can do so. Those students will also learn remotely inside the building.
In the meantime, the school is considering providing every family with a thermometer so they can check their kids’ temperatures before dropping them off at school. The charter school also provided students with Chromebooks and iPads.
Under a second phase when it’s safer to return, the school will use a blended learning model. In the third phase, all students will return to in-person school.
“There will be continued input and continued data,” Adriaan said.