Piedmont’s Millennium High starting school year with new principal
By Lou Fancher
During her earliest childhood years before ever setting foot in a classroom, Irma Muñoz had learned a math lesson taught by her parents: Education equals empowerment.
Irma Muñoz was named the new principal at Piedmont’s Millennium High School in May. (photo courtesy of Irma Muñoz) Growing up under the wise tutelage of her mother and father, who immigrated from Mexico to Southern California for a brighter family future, Muñoz, the new principal at Piedmont’s Millennium High School, benefited from early-learning English programs. Quickly becoming proficient in English and already fluent in Spanish, she moved north with her family to Concord and attended Mount Diablo High School, expecting to pursue a career in technology.
Muñoz today holds an undergraduate degree from UC Davis, a master’s degree and teaching credentials from Stanford University, a second master’s degree and administrative credential from UC Berkeley and is enrolled as a doctoral candidate in UC Berkeley’s Leaders for Equity and Democracy program.
She began her career teaching Spanish at Newark Memorial High School and for a year at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. Accepting an administrative position as principal and master teacher at the National Hispanic University in San Jose, she subsequently served as an assistant principal at Live Oak High School, Mills High School and San Leandro High School before joining Piedmont High School as an assistant principal in 2015.
After eight years at Piedmont High, Muñoz was named Millennium High’s principal in May. Millennium is an alternative school with five classrooms on Piedmont High’s campus. Established in 2000 and often mistakenly believed to be a continuation school, even by people who live nearby and whose children attend Piedmont High, Millennium offers courses approved by the University of California and California State University systems that prepare students for four-year college eligibility.
Different from continuation schools that provide accelerated credentials for students who have fallen behind in standard curriculum, Millennium has no “fast-track” courses. The school’s smaller class sizes (10 to 20 students) and overall population (60 students are enrolled this year) are designed to offer greater individual attention from teachers for students whose learning is improved in a smaller format. During lunch, brunch and electives that include advanced placement classes, arts courses and other subjects, Millennium students join their Piedmont High classmates.
“We’re a small school, but we’re able to have a large-school feel because we’re located on the campus with Piedmont High,” Muñoz says. “We have self-contained classrooms, but our students also mingle with the other students. What makes us unique is that we’re small but still a college prep school. Our kids who graduate can apply to four-year colleges.”
Muñoz says many people today recognize that comprehensive high schools can be challenging and some students do not thrive in large environments. For students who benefit from individual attention and a smaller campus, Millennium is meant to a place that lets them maximize their learning potential.
“That’s the benefit,” she says. “Our teachers know every student, and I will know every kid’s name and be familiar with all of them soon. I’ve got a head start with my years at Piedmont High, so I’m getting there.”
An important component of her new role and getting to know the student population well will be returning to the classroom.
“I’ll be teaching the Leadership Associated Student Body class. As a principal I represent several layers — I keep the school going, implement rules. In the classroom, kids see you as something other than disciplinary. I can be a counselor, teacher, mentor. It will help me build relationships with kids faster than if I was just in the office.”
While guiding students and developing their leadership skills, Muñoz is likely to draw on experience and knowledge gained from overseeing the Piedmont Unified School District’s Wellness Center and leading several of the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. The curriculum and partnerships resulted in two accomplishments and one future goal that she highlights as she steps away from her supervisory role.
“We established a partnership with a local group that selects predoctoral psychology interns who provide services on our campuses, and the Wellness Center received certification from the American Psychology Association that will allow us to search for interns nationwide. In the future, I believe more community partnerships with nonprofits is the next step so the Wellness Center can offer more services.”
In light of the DEI work the district has done to date, Muñoz says the educational first step for a school district’s population is always self-inspection.
“What is the path, what is the spectrum of needs? For any school district, doing a needs assessment is first, because folks are in different stages. My belief with any kind of change is that consistency is key. In education, there’s significant turnover, especially during the last three years, but we have to be in it for the long haul.
“One of the reasons I stayed in my leadership role at Piedmont High for eight years is that the work has to be done consistently. There are no easy answers, but these are conversations that need to be held.”
She hopes that under her leadership in the coming year, Millennium will become better understood and recognized by the community.
“I want it to be known we are a college prep high school and preparing students to have choices. Some people don’t even realize Piedmont has a second high school. And as a student of color, I want my feeling that education is power to be the feeling kids at Millennium have. They will use the tools we provide in their futures and post-secondary education. We want them to thrive and be successful.”
Even when she’s not in the high school’s halls and classrooms, students will know she understands firsthand the challenge of being a student. UC Berkeley’s PhD program in which Muñoz is enrolled is designed for working professionals, and much of the study involved in her doctoral studies will overlap with her work at Millennium.
Her workload will still be heavy, though. For self-care, Muñoz has been a licensed Zumba instructor for 10 years and says teaching Zumba classes will provide fulfillment outside of work. Partnering with Sukanya Goswami and Karyn Shipp, Piedmont High and Piedmont Middle’s respective principals, along with a tight circle of friends who are mostly educators, will form her support team.