Schooling the System

Disrupting generations of educational inequities.

Teacher. Coach. Advocate. Counselor. Occasional custodian. It’s all in a day’s work for Jason Babineau ’07, a passionate educator and 33-year-old principal of San Diego’s Hoover High School. Standing 6-foot-5, it’s hard to miss him, and even harder to keep up with him.

“I’m so impressed with these students,” he says, barely fitting into a cafeteria bench for an interview just a few minutes before the lunchroom fills. “Their paths, their stories, the challenges they’re working through—these are extremely courageous kids, and every single one of them needs a champion. That’s why I got into education—to be that person.”

For all his dedication and swift rise to leading Hoover High, Babineau took a roundabout path into education. He traces it back to his very first class at UC San Diego, when the American history major took a prerequisite introductory sociology course taught by Rebecca Klatch. The class opened his eyes to new perspectives, teaching him about the many kinds of adversities that different groups of people face. “The class blew my mind,” he says. “The sociological frame of mind sparked my interest in society and how we can have a positive impact on it.”

But what eventually sealed his path was a volunteer internship at The Preuss School UC San Diego, where he worked as a teacher’s aide, providing first-generation college-bound students with the tools and support vital for success. “It didn’t make sense to me why all high school students didn’t have such opportunities. That experience really caused me to ask, ‘What can I do to make sure that all students have the opportunities that they deserve?’”

Babineau saw there were clear gaps within the education system, and when neglected, these gaps negatively impact not just students, but entire communities and the generations of families within them. The scale of these observations lit a fire inside of him, and he recognized education as the greatest social equalizer, deciding at that point to work to improve our educational system and help provide opportunity and equity for disadvantaged youth.

“It begins with a mentality,” he says. “The belief that all kids have the potential to succeed, regardless of circumstance. And this mentality starts with educators—we need the right people who believe this, and who then can push students with these expectations, so the students believe it too.”

It’s a philosophy that has been developed and honed since his first teaching position at Mt. Miguel High School, a public school in east San Diego County. At age 23, Babineau found his rhythm teaching subjects ranging from math to physical education and, ultimately, teacher education. But perhaps more importantly, he saw the power of truly connecting with students, ensuring they knew someone was on their side and believed in them. “At Mt. Miguel, I learned that if we do just three things—respect kids, love kids and have high expectations for kids—they can do anything,” he says. It’s an ideology he’s carried with him throughout his path to principal. “That was an essential component when I brought my views and vision to the staff at Hoover,” he says. “Love, respect and high expectations—if we do those three things, we can make great things happen for kids.”

Babineau believes those three things can bring change and positively shift the trajectory of not only students, but the communities they will come to inherit. His vision is one of equity, a system in which kids at schools like his—where 90 percent of the student body lives below the poverty line—have the same opportunities as kids in other areas. “If we foster educators who have an equity lens, we can change the way people look at education,” he says. “When we have leaders who are advocates for equity, who go out to legislators and school boards and show them data about the needs of our communities, that’s how we can help change the system and change the opportunities available to our students.”

In his first year at Hoover, Babineau has implemented a wall-to-wall model for the school’s five small, career-focused learning academies, meaning every student is engaged in either Health; Information Technology; Building and Engineering; Social Justice; or Literature, Media & Arts. The structure gives students opportunity for hands-on experience in fields that interest them and promotes a sense of support and belonging within their cohorts. Babineau is also raising expectations for students with access to higher-level courses, including dual-enrollment programs and AP courses. And on the other side, he’s partnering with neighboring elementary and middle schools to prepare students as young as kindergarteners, and is teaming up with parents to make sure students have the support systems outside of class.

He hasn’t forgotten his alma mater either—Babineau also brings in undergraduate UC San Diego interns to teach math, in partnership with Erica Heinzman, M.Ed ’03, professor of education studies. “Giving back to UCSD and giving back to Tritons and to people who want to enter education is something that is very important to me, because that was exactly what put me on this path and inspired me to disrupt the system.”

No day is like any other at Hoover High School, he says, but one thing is: every lunch period spent hanging out with his students. “It’s my favorite part of the day,” he says as the cafeteria fills. “To see all of our students together, interacting in a positive way, building relationships—it’s important to me. I was worried I’d miss that interaction when I left the classroom, but I still try to see as many kids as I can. And though it may be brief, it means a lot. A smile and a handshake can go a long way in life.”