Al Adams, headmaster of Lick-Wilmerding High School, is retiring. In his 23 years there, he is credited with turning the school around and establishing a paragon independent
institution: a private school with a public purpose.
Adams said he will be able to commit more time to promoting the idea of private schools that do as much as they can to benefit the neighborhoods they reside in. He will begin
building a national movement based on LWHS’s innovative programs.
“I feel really blessed,” Adams said. “We have great kids that go to Lick and we love our neighborhood.”
Adams, a Harvard Ph.D, spent his 41-year career as an independent schools educator. Not parochial schools tied to churches, but private schools that tend to have progressive approaches to education. That foundation led him to follow his public purpose mission, set up several new programs at Lick and commit more time to the Ingleside itself.
“It’s pretty special,” Adams said of LWHS’s relationship with Ingleside. “It’s a very positive congenial relationship, and we see it as being mutually beneficial. It’s not just doing good for the community, we get a lot from the community too.”
Private School with Public Purpose
Founded in Potrero Hill as a technical arts school in 1895, LWHS was co-ed and included college prep work, which was a progressive idea back then, Adams said. It was also free.
Now, 40 percent of its students receive financial aid and it’s one of the most diverse private schools in the country. Adams took that history into account when he was hired. It was not a low point in the school’s history, Adams said, but it was clear the board wanted him to take the school in a new direction.
“He’s a visionary,” Beth Rubenstein of Out of Site Center for Arts Education said. “He believes education is really transformative.”
Adams reshaped LWHS into a school that models “other-centeredness and generosity of spirit for our students. LWHS’s ultimate aim, through its students and its graduates, and through its role as an institutional leader, is to make the world a better place,” LWHS’s website states.
All LWHS students volunteer for street clean-up days and other service-learning events as part of the curriculum. But over the years, Adams said he increasingly saw the need and benefit of getting involved with the Ingleside himself.
Supporting Nearby Nonprofits
“When the Carbarn was opened to the public for the first time after the Loma Prieta earthquake, MUNI sent out invitations,” Adams said. “I was curious because it’s right across the highway from us.”
There Adams met Dan Weaver, a proponent of the project to rehabilitate the Carbarn, and invited him to lunch over at the school. Adams listened to Weaver’s idea to preserve the building and make it into a youth arts and community center. The two have been friends
and co-founding board members of the Geneva Carbarn & Powerhouse ever since.
“Al understands the need for high quality youth classes and programs in District 11,” Weaver said. “He is able to express that need to others in a unique way because of his experience working in the private school sector and his understanding of the public purpose of education for all.”
When Beth Rubenstein came up with the idea to form Out of Site, Adams was one of the first people she talked to.
“He really got our idea,” she said of the visual and performance arts education nonprofit. “He encouraged me to base the organization in the Excelsior/OMI.”
Out of Site’s offices are now based in a Howth Street residence owned by LWHS. In keeping with the public purpose motif, Out of Site pays no rent for the property. Geneva
Carbarn & Powerhouse’s executive director and program director also share office space at LWHS.
Devotion to Education
Adams has been instrumental to the Bay Area Teachers Center, the Center for Civic Engagement and Aim High.
Since 1997, the Bay Area Teachers Center has partnered with San Francisco State University to train public school teachers. Teaching credentials are not required to teach at private schools, so this program demonstrates how central the public purpose idea is to Adams.
Adams’ most recent creation is the Center for Civic Engagement, started three years ago at LWHS. The center is its own non-profit organization that takes the service learning idea and expands it beyond the Ingleside and even the city. Students working with the center
build longer term projects that require more planning, more thought and more collaboration. It’s a process that prepares them for their working lives while benefiting a cause the students may not otherwise ever have known about.
Aim High is a summer school program for middle schools who need academic help. Adams will debut an Aim High in Kings Beach (Placer County) this summer.
Two projects that began this year will take LWHS students to Tanzania in July and bring
Japanese students to San Francisco in 2013. The Japanese students are from the tsunami devastated town of Ishinomaki where LWHS students are planning to help those kids re-establish their schools. The Tanzania trip is part of a service learning and leadership program where students help a school near the town of Karatu build classrooms and school furniture.
To Adams, this is what private school with public purpose means, and it’s now permanently ingrained in the fabric of Lick-Wilmerding High School.
“I’m excited to see what else he’s going to do,” Rubenstein said. “He should be very proud of his work and all the people he’s touched.”
The article appeared in The Ingleside Light’s July/August 2011 issue.