Principal J.C. Farr
By Alexandra Fee
Photos by Laura Reoch, September-Days Photography
A successful high school principal is an instructional leader who, while being a visionary, must also balance tough love with earnest praise, have excellent listening skills, and be consistent, organized and prepared.Compassion, Empathy and Love are three words Tamalpais High School principal, J.C. Farr made the decision to live and lead his students by. OneTam is now the new mantra being echoed through the halls as it encapsulates J.C. ‘s and his team’s commitment to Tam-Unity, a play on Tamalpais and Community, concentrated on building and fostering a united community at Tam.
While J.C. serves as Principal, he was quick to praise his team: Assistant Principals, Kaki McLachlan, and Conner Snow, and Administrative Secretaries, Patty Parnow and Jenny Poster. With Tam’s recent recognition as a California Distinguished High School, J.C. acknowledges that it is absolutely a collaborative effort in managing all of Tam’s operations to maintain its stature as an outstanding high school and he wouldn’t be who he is without his team. This month, Mill Valley Living is proud to offer a little more insight into J.C’s background as he and his dedicated team prepare to commemorate our second pandemic class of seniors with the Tam High Class of 2021.
Born in Oakland into a lively household with six older brothers and sisters, J.C.’s biological mother sadly passed away after his birth. Although his father struggled with the loss of his wife, with the support of a large family, including his parent’s eight siblings, J.C. grew up in a loving, close-knit and devoted family, always staying true to their roots in Richmond across the bay. J.C’s wife, Carmella Farr works for the Oakland Housing Authority. Married now for 10 years, Carmella and J.C. feel that Tam’s 1600 students are essentially their children. “Being a principal is not just a job. It’s a lifestyle.” J.C. told us.
Karin Hatton, described J.C. as “an exceptional visionary leader, patient and thoughtful in his response to conflict, and who asks very reflective questions in order for us to continually examine our practices. As a leader, he works to distribute leadership which builds peoples’ senses of confidence in their ability to do good work. He values building a team and his ability to pull people in and remain steady is what has allowed us to do good work in very uncertain times.” Meanwhile, Laura Keaton’s sentiments helped us learn more about his character as she told us, “I’ve worked with many administrators and J.C. is one of the best! Not only is he fun to work with, he is amazing with both students and the community. We call him the ‘student whisperer’! I respect him as an administrator and as a friend. I feel lucky to have landed here at Tam with J.C.”
J.C. attended Richmond public schools but after being hit in the face with a book in first grade, his family made the decision to enroll him at St. Cornelius Elementary School in Richmond where he cultivated childhood friendships that remain strong to this day. He attended St. Mary’s High School, an all boys private high school in Berkeley comprised of 370 students—77 students in his senior class– of which an impressive 76 matriculated to four year universities. St. Mary’s was diverse, competitive but also “a lot of fun”, specializing in educating kids of color from Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond. Based on his impressive high school achievements, J.C. was accepted to every college he applied to. Preferring to stay close and connected to his home base, he chose to become a Cal Bear at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1998 with a degree in Political Science.
After graduating and not really sure what he wanted to do, he considered applying to law school, but lucky for us, landed a substitute teaching position at Kennedy High School in Richmond. The principal at Kennedy recognized J.C.’s educational aptitude and urged him to pursue a teaching credential so she could hire him as a full time teacher. At 23 years old, right out of college, J.C. spent one year substitute teaching, but quickly moved into full time teaching. It was there at Kennedy High , a resource challenged, and very tough school, that his direction in life was set and proved to be one of the best experiences of his life. The relationships he developed with the students there still resonate with him today, including coaching girls basketball.
Meanwhile, a brand new school in Richmond at the time, Lovonya Dejean Middle School offered him a full-time teaching position. But there was a catch. He was to teach US and World History classes in the alcove of the library! During his four years at Dejean (eventually securing his own classroom), J.C. had time to reflect on his big picture career aspirations. Originally dreaming of becoming a sports agent, he decided to apply to the acclaimed Principles Leadership Institute at UC Berkeley, a premiere program for equity focused school leaders aimed at improving education for vulnerable and historically underserved students in California’s public schools. Initially rejected, he defied any sense of discouragement by choosing to work extremely hard in honing his craft of teaching which led to his acceptance the following year. His determination and hard work paid off as he earned his Masters at UC Berkeley in Educational Leadership. From here, J.C. made the transition from teaching to administration when he applied for the Vice Principal position at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro–a big leap in terms of responsibility, a move away from home, and another tough environment. He served as Vice Principal there for five years before moving to Castro Valley as a Vice Principal, then transitioned to Menlo-Atherton High School, a significant departure from the East Bay– to one of the most socially economically diverse high schools in the state, encompassing students from the surrounding affluent communities and East Palo Alto. Although he loved his time at Menlo-Atherton, spending upwards of 15 hours per week in his car proved to be a brutal commute from his home in Richmond. Tamalpais High School appeared on his radar as he began to explore a principalship closer to home. But it was Marin City’s role at Tam that immediately rendered a connection for him. J.C.’s, grandparents worked in the Kaiser shipyards during the Great Migration, his grandfather, a longshoreman in Seaport, a former neighborhood in Richmond–much like the origins of Marin City, whose original residents, also from the Great Migration, built ships for World War II.
J.C. felt an immediate kinship with Marin City and while Tam offered its complexities, it was the community support combined with his skill set that led him to pursue the principalship at Tam. Yet, at first, he actually turned Tam’s offer down. However, upon further reflection and a Sunday night drive to Tam’s campus with Carmella five years ago, J.C. admitted he felt a spiritual connection that evening on Tam’s grounds as they drove around the quiet campus. He knew right then he belonged at Tam.
Now, five years later, Tam was recently honored with the prestigious California Distinguished High School award for high schools, a selective award (one of 120 high schools recognized in the state) based on a school’s exceptional record to provide for all students and their commitment to data-driven efforts that prepare students for college and career, combined with excellence in teaching, learning and collaboration. This is the second time Tam has been bestowed this honor since J.C.’s been at Tam, the first one in 2017, a Blue Ribbon award for its CORE program which pairs students with the same English and History teachers both freshman and sophomore years. However, J.C. feels particularly proud of this most recent award as it represents a manifestation of his overall work on campus these past five years aimed at closing the achievement gap for all students, along with the fact that Tam is the only high school in Marin to earn this award. As Tara Taupier, superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District, said, “Farr’s work to build strong student-teacher relationships has had a tremendous impact on the campus culture, which is reflected in the data used to select the distinguished schools.” Furthermore,J.C.’s focus on community—the spirit of Tam Unity—staying together is what sets Tam apart. Rather than focus on the profound sense of grief for what was lost during these pandemic times, J.C. focused on spreading gratitude – by urging Tam’s students to focus more on what we have versus what we lost. Welcoming the entire student body back to campus full-time was “simply fantastic” for J.C. and his team. Needless to say, always very visible to his students, nothing made J.C. happier as he made his rounds from the fields to the gym to the pool to the tennis courts to cheer on our Tam student-athletes these past few months.
When we asked J.C. what it has been like to be a high school principal throughout the pandemic, he took a deep breath as he told us, “It has been nothing like anything you have ever had any kind of preparation for. This is my 14th year in school administration. I’ve been through a lot and I’ve learned a lot in all of the schools that I’ve worked at—yet this has been like starting from scratch from day one — with a lot of trial and error.” But what struck us most poignantly was J.C.s proclamation that “we had to take care of one another—that the most important piece was how we treated our students and how we treated one another.” He titled his message to his students in the yearbook, “A Year to Persevere” in which he thanked them for their perseverance during such a difficult year. “Accepting and understanding others to create a sense of belonging, and embracing the mindset that has allowed us to endure this challenge. The spirit of Tam-Unity lives through each of you.”
When we asked his team to tell us what it’s been like working with J.C., Assistant Principal Secretary, Jenny Poster emphasized, “Working with J.C. the past few years has been an honor and true pleasure. J.C. is amazing with the students and approachable by all (students, parents and staff). J.C. gives each and all his undivided attention. We are truly lucky to have him here at Tam.” Patty Parnow, Tam’s Assistant Principal Secretary summed J.C. up, “J.C. is awesome! He is incredible with the students. I love watching him interact with them in front of the arches before and after school! He is also a community connector leader that ensures all are included!”
With different feeder schools and communities, OneTam seemed like a natural theme this year to highlight Tam Unity. This is what led to Compassion, Empathy and Love as core values for Tam—and it worked–but certainly not without challenges– every single day.. Each day was different with changing guidelines and constantly evolving schedules. J.C. reminded us that Tam started this school year virtually, transitioned into a hybrid schedule and then finally back to full-time, in person—three significant changes with all kinds of varying schedules and parameters. His thoughtful and diligent leadership style, despite the uncertainty, set the benchmark for his team. “J.C. is a tireless advocate for students who ensures that student success and wellbeing are at the center of all we do as a school” explained Assistant Principal, Connor Snow. Fellow Assistant Principal, Kaki McLachlan added, “J.C. is a great role model who consistently reminds us to not lose focus of the why behind our work. This allows us to keep equity and students at the forefront of all decisions we make as a team.”
Tam remains the most diverse high school in Marin County which J.C. asserted has greatly benefited Tam’s student body through exposure to different cultures by broadening their views of the world and developing an understanding of all people. “I really wanted to build a school this community could be proud of and want to send their kids to everyday, knowing their kids will thrive in this environment, a safe environment with a world class education right here at Tam. And inspire them to move on and achieve any and everything they want.” Our community should feel extremely confident in knowing the quality of education at Tam is nothing short of stellar. Lastly, while acknowledging how competitive Tam is, J.C. explained he prefers not to compare Tam to Redwood or any other high school for that matter. He simply advocates for Tam students, teachers, coaches, staff and administrators to be the best versions of themselves, and “If we do that, we’ll take care of whatever competition there is.”
In continuing his pursuit of educational leadership, J.C. is currently in the midst of completing his doctorate at Gonzaga University. In the meantime, our community continues to be grateful for all that J.C. Farr and his team have accomplished in distinguishing Tamalpais High School as an exemplary high school thriving on the pillars of compassion, empathy and love as OneTam.