Back to News

Wilson wants a second chance to make a good impression

Wilson Middle School Principal Dave Downey relaxes at the Tiger Bench, a symbol of the many changes that have occurred since he took over two years ago.

Wilson Middle School Principal Dave Downey relaxes at the Tiger Bench, a symbol of the many changes that have occurred since he took over two years ago.

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. It’s an old saying that Wilson Middle School Principal Dave Downey hopes he can change.

Downey’s first impression after touring Wilson as principal two years ago was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

“I was appalled by the curbside appeal,” Downey said. Trash was strewn everywhere. Buildings sported mismatched paint. Homeless people were sleeping in overgrown bushes.

“It had a feeling of a school that wasn’t cared about,” Downey said.

His feelings were confirmed when he contacted a principal at a local elementary school asking for help in recruiting students to Wilson. “The principal said, ‘I will recommend my kids come here when you clean it up,’” Downey said.

That’s when the principal went to work.

To change the culture, Downey worked with staff to make cleanliness and friendliness a priority. The school was painted, landscaping was improved and trash cans brought in. A receptionist replaced the office answering machine.

And school officials partnered with the Rainforest Art Project to create a tropical stained-glass mural at the entrance of the administration building and a larger than life “Tiger Bench” in the student quad. The bench is the work of professional artists and more than 100 Wilson students, who helped place thousands of colored stones on the piece to give the school’s mascot a realistic, yet radiant appearance.

Student pride in the bench has led to zero tagging.

Facilities aren’t the only improvements. Wilson became a member of the City Heights Educational Collaborative last year, which has brought added resources, including School in the Park for sixth- and seventh-graders. School in the Park is a collaboration involving Balboa Park museums, the San Diego Unified School District, and Price Philanthropies, which takes students from classrooms to museums and brings hands-on learning in real-life environments.

What’s more, the SDSU Price Community Scholars Program matched mentors from San Diego State University with Wilson Middle School students to help foster a college-going culture. Ocean Discovery Institute is encouraging Wilson students to pursue studies in science and oceanography. San Diego Unified’s 2014 Middle School Teacher of the Year, Khamphet Pease, is leading an after-school robotics club that competes citywide.

To bring these academic improvements to light, Downey has been making regular appearances at “Coffee with the Principals” gatherings to encourage parents of elementary school students to give Wilson a fair shake when it comes to selecting a school for their kids.

“I need to bring back the community,” Downey said of recruitment efforts.

It’s been quite a transformation from the time he was vice principal at Wilson 17 years ago when the campus employed nine, full-time security guards because of problems with gangs and violence.

“This is not the school you went to,” Downey tells parents, noting now only one security guard is necessary, which is in line with most other schools in the district.

“My biggest achievement is to get parents to come and see what’s new,” Downey said. He points to the bilingual staff, the many after-school programs, the laptops with Internet access that students can take home, and other services supporting low-income families at the campus.

Another pitch? Wilson Middle School is in the Hoover High School cluster, making it part of the College Avenue Compact that guarantees students entering Hoover High as freshmen entrance to San Diego State University if they meet certain requirements.

The sales pitch appears to be working as enrollment, especially in the sixth-grade class, has been climbing.

Meanwhile, plans are underway to begin construction on a new school where the playing fields are today. Work is slated to begin in 18 months and be ready for the start of the 2018 school year.

In the meantime, Downey will be busy working to poke holes in that cliché about first impressions.

This stained glass mural of the school’s mascot greets visitors to the administration office.

This stained glass mural of the school’s mascot greets visitors to the administration office.

back to top
back to top