Best Today Ever with Darrell McClendon

SET High Assistant Principal, Engineering Chief Business Officer Darrell McClendon converses with a high school student on campus

Best Today Ever with Darrell McClendon

Our faculty and staff focus on building strong student relationships for whole student success at the School for Entrepreneurship and Technology (SET High). SET High is not your average WASC-accredited, tuition-free public California Distinguished high school in San Diego. A key leader in driving our unique close-knit school culture is Mr. Darrell McClendon, Assistant Principal. Most call him “MC,” and others refer to him as the “Dad” of SET High. Believe us, you want to get to know this man, so we asked him a few questions.

During the interview, students constantly approached his door to chat. Between classes, students tried to come into his office to get snacks that he had on his desk behind him. He explained that each snack has a cost, though, they have to sit down and talk.

I think they listen to me because I spend a lot of time actually listening to them. I do what’s called active listening, before it became en Vogue. I listen to what they have to say and I don’t pass judgment.

The Disciplinarian With Head & Heart

Mr. McClendon will readily admit that his job involves discipline and he is very good at it, but that doesn’t mean he believes in defaulting to punitive action. 

We try to take a holistic approach. I would rather sit down and have a kid talk to me to discover the root cause of the issue. You start peeling back that onion. 

I remember my very first day here. It was obvious that we had some work to do to change the culture of the school. Kids didn’t talk to the staff the way they do now and we had some students who were doing things that don’t belong in school. On my very first day of school, eight years ago, we were concerned about a kid who had obviously taken a controlled substance. He and his friends wouldn’t talk. We said, ‘Well, either you tell us if you have taken something or we need to call paramedics, because this is a medical emergency’. They still wouldn’t say anything. I had seen him earlier sitting with a friend of his. So I got the friend out of class, and I said, ‘Hey, I know you don’t know me. You just met me. I know this is my first day, but I’m asking you to trust me. Your friend is in there and something is going on with him and he needs your help. I think that whatever you tell me will help your friend’. And so she told me what he had done. We were able to actually help this kid and he wound up graduating from SET. And one of the things that he said at graduation was, ‘I’m really glad that I had a friend. I was ticked at her at first, but I’m glad a good friend would tell you what was going on because that probably saved my life.’ And I do believe it did save this young person’s life. That was my first day here. Fast forward 8 years, we’ve come a long way, and now most students have learned to trust us. That’s how you build a culture where everyone is looking out for each other and keeping each other in check. The students are the ones who always see things first and know everything that is going on in school. The difference at SET is that the students and staff are allies to make sure that everyone – students and staff alike – are always working to be the best version of themselves.

Students Are Not Numbers

The 12:1 student-to-teacher ratio, in Mr. McClendon’s view, is what makes SET High unique compared to other schools.

Right now is not a good time for this statement, because we’re so early in the school year, but Dr. McCurdy, Ms. Heath and I know every single kid in the school by name. We have a bunch of new kids, so we don’t know all of their names yet, but we’ll know every single kid in the school fairly quickly. Ms. Heath, to her credit, knows every single parent of the kids in the school. It makes a difference.

I always tell potential students that SET students don’t even know they have ID numbers. I don’t know their ID numbers, but I do know Mary. I do know Tim. I do know Pat. Whereas if you go to a different school, the first thing that they ask is, ‘Hey, what’s your student ID number so I can look up who you are.’

Genuine Care Schoolwide

I put our staff up against other schools’ anywhere. You’re not going to find staff who care as much as ours do. It’s a part of their blood.

We were talking to a kid who decided to try out a traditional school. And the kid told us that in the second week of school she still doesn’t have a schedule. We were shocked to hear that on the very first day of school she asked teachers where a particular class was and all of them said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure.’

No one here would have said I don’t know. They would have said, ‘Oh, OK. That’s so and so, that’s right down the hall here. Do you want me to walk you to class?’ We genuinely care.

Student Inspiration

It’s clear “MC” inspires many students and staff at SET High. He told many stories in which he helped students from troubled situations gain perspective, reframe their attitude, and turn themselves around. It’s not his engineering degree that matters to him, it’s his service to others. When asked if any student inspired him, he didn’t pause one moment before answering.

There are many stories, but I’ll tell you the first one that comes to mind. His name is Kevin Garcia. Kevin played sports here. He ran track. He ran cross country. He also lived in Tijuana. He would get up at 4:30 in the morning every day and get to school sometimes before McCurdy and me every single day, never late to class, and graduated with a good GPA. He ultimately decided to go to the Marine Corps even though he clearly could have gone to college. The kids actually produced a movie about his daily commute, filmed him walking over the border, and hopping on the trolley to come to school. When we showed the video to all of the students and families at our exhibition, there was hardly a dry eye in the building. He’s now in Austria serving his country. Just very inspiring, you know?

Kevin was just a great, great kid. He comes to visit whenever he is back in town. And he’s one that actually started out from a pretty tough life, raised in the LA area, I think, getting into fights all the time. He said many times, ‘I think if I stayed there, there’s no way I would’ve graduated from high school.’  He had people here right from day one that wanted to help him. We were blessed to have him and I think he was blessed to have us.

Words to Live By

There is a chalkboard in MC’s office-of-6-walls (a true statement that he tells students to get them to think), in which the students and staff scrawl phrases Mr. McClendon says all the time. Here are a few:

“I love you though, and that’s what’s important.”

“It always ends well for me.”

“Am I right? Or am I right?”

“You don’t fail unless you don’t get up.”

“Best today ever!”

He graced us with one last thought:

You know, life is like climbing a mountain, right? We spend all of our time looking up, thinking I have so much farther to go. Every now and then you have to turn around and look at how far you’ve come.

Thank you, Mr. McClendon! You are an inspiration to us all. 

If you would like to get to know us better at the School for Entrepreneurship & Technology, a tuition-free public high school in San Diego, we welcome you to schedule a shadow day. We believe high school doesn’t have to be stressful or scary, but rather a warm accepting environment where students get to learn more about themselves than they ever thought possible. SET High is also a great place to challenge the mind while exercising passion. Check us out anytime- we keep enrollment open year-round

About SET High 

SET High offers each student individual attention from multi-talented, highly qualified teachers. Students build a healthy camaraderie with classmates inside an intellectually rigorous environment that brings out individual talents and personality, helping develop character and direction in life. With a wide variety of electives, flexible scheduling, dual enrollment college classes and more — our students regularly exceed academic and personal expectations. Enrolling now!