California High School has ushered in a new era, with Sarah Wondolowski moving in to the principal's office to begin her tenure as head administrator at the San Ramon campus.
"I feel amazing. I love this school," Wondolowski said during a recent interview. "I just, I love where I'm working, and it couldn't be a better group of staff and parents and students that I get to work with."
The 30-year-old Pleasant Hill resident was selected last month as a replacement for longtime principal Mark Corti, whose retirement from Cal High was announced in late June. She had served as one of Corti's assistant principals for the previous two school years.
"Sarah is a rising star in our district, and has shown great leadership potential," said Mary Shelton, San Ramon Valley schools superintendent. "She has already established herself in the Cal High community and has a fabulous rapport with the staff and students."
"I've always tended to do things young," Wondolowski said, referring to being selected as swim team head coach as a teenager, graduating from college early and making the jump into upper administration at a young age.
"I've learned a lot from the wisdom that surrounds me," she added. "I've always felt prepared for jobs earlier than people would typically find me to be, but what is really unique about my situation is I've always had people willing to take a chance on me and not let my age stand in the way."
The San Ramon Valley school board certainly didn't let age get in the way when it appointed Wondolowski as Cal High principal on July 22.
"Sarah has already proven herself as an exceptional educational leader in our district, and she will be a great fit as the next leader of California High School," school board president Rachel Hurd said. "I am confident that the students and staff at Cal High will continue to thrive under her leadership."
Her appointment occurred amid a whirlwind stretch for Wondolowski, who got engaged to boyfriend John Cranford -- a San Ramon police officer -- just a day before being named principal and then celebrated her 30th birthday seven days afterward.
"It's been a big week for me," she said, smiling.
Raised in nearby Lafayette, Wondolowski graduated from her hometown's Acalanes High School, where she starred in the pool as a swimmer and water polo player.
She completed her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley in 2005, earning a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in education. She is a fifth-generation Cal grad.
Wondolowski's career goal took her about an hour north, to UC Davis, from which she obtained a teaching credential in 2006. She finalized her Masters of Arts in education from Davis the following year, writing her master's thesis while concurrently experiencing her first year as a teacher, at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek.
Wondolowski taught history for five years at Las Lomas in addition to coaching swimming and girls' water polo and serving four years as activities director, which included teaching the leadership class. The latter role, she said, helped expose her to school administration in a new way.
"It kind of gave me the chance to work with administration more closely than I would have as a teacher," she added. "In doing that, and having that whole-school perspective where I got to do something for the betterment of the whole school, I realized that it was administration that I was meant to go into."
Her pursuit of an administrative opportunity led her to look beyond the Acalanes Union High School District -- which includes Las Lomas as well as her childhood high school, Alacanes.
An ideal position, according to Wondolowski, opened up before the 2012-13 school year: assistant principal at Cal High.
"I wanted to be here for the potential for growth in my job," she said. "When you are in a smaller district (like Acalanes), there are less places to go. And here I knew that this was a place where I could take on things I was really interested and excited about, and then grow professionally."
The Cal Berkeley graduate landed the Cal High job, and spent the next two years doing a little bit of everything as assistant principal.
Wondolowski said her duties included overseeing students, professional development and working with technology, athletics, special education, the social studies department, the Student Recognition Project and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.
Additionally, Wondolowski said her experience working under Corti, who served as Cal High principal for 15 years, helped her learn some valuable lessons that she'll use in her time in the head office.
"The biggest thing that he taught me was that, when there's someone passionate about something, you've got to let them run with whatever they're passionate about," she added. "Give them the support, and they'll do something great for you. And he did that with me all the time."
Corti this week called Wondolowski "a superb choice" to lead the school of more than 2,600 students.
"Her relationship with the students, staff and community during her first two years as an assistant principal will create a seamless transition," he said. "Her ability to collaborate with stakeholders will naturally continue to enhance learning, improve programs and encourage innovation."
Wondolowski said her main goals include continuing effective implementation of the new state educational standards.
"We need to get to a place where we are really living and breathing the Common Core every day," she said. "Where our students are actually learning differently, and they're learning in different ways and they're learning different material. We've got to be preparing our kids for what's out there in the global community, and have them be prepared to go and enter that."
She added, "My goal is to provide opportunities for teachers to learn new ways and then the support that they need to implement that."
Wondolowski said she'll also focus on encouraging growth for students at all levels by "supporting our lower students and bringing them up to our expected level, pushing our middle students to strive to be the best that they can be, and really challenging and having the rigor for our top-end students."
As for significant challenges, she said she doesn't really foresee any at the outset of her tenure.
"Normally, when a principal comes in, the challenge is to learn the school, and I feel like I know the school. And I feel like we can keep things moving without this transition causing any hiccups in the progress that we were making," Wondolowski added.
"I feel just really thankful to have the support that I have here, and I think I'm very fortunate to be able to step into this position at a school I know with staff that I believe supports me," she said. "It absolutely feels like the right fit for me."