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Story of Principal Cheryl Chinn
Artist and Writer: Bonnie Borucki
Original completed 2007
Restored in 2018
Link to full interview text
Link to original interview audio

The Malcolm X Elementary School community that exists today has roots in generations of

families, staff, faculty and students that worked hard creating an environment where all students

have opportunities to shine in their own ways, guided by stellar leadership.


Cheryl Chinn was crucial in creating a leadership structure that honors the diversity and cultural

richness of the surrounding community. She began her career at Malcolm X School as a teacher in 1983,

about a decade after the school community voted to change the name from Lincoln to Malcolm X in sup-

port of the Civil Rights Movement. Cheryl became vice principal in 1987 and was promoted to principal

in 1989. She held this position for 21 years, until her retirement in 2010.


Berkeley began voluntarily desegregating public schools in the 1960s. This was a learning process,

complicated by the fact that decades of redlining had separated Berkeley neighborhoods by race and

class. The challenge to balance school populations and resources continues today.


In 1995 BUSD reconfigured the entire school district, which changed Malcolm X from a 4-6 to a

K-5 school. In addition to the challenging demands of reconfiguration, there were ongoing issues of ne-

glect and inadequate funding, issues faced by many schools in historically redlined neighborhoods. The

school needed to be pulled together. Cheryl knew that the key to doing this was to recruit and retain the

best teachers and staff available, training teachers in sharing leadership roles and supporting each other.

She used, as inspiration, “Lessons of the Geese” by Robert McNeish. Geese fly in a “V” formation. When

the lead goose gets tired, it drops out of the front position and moves to the rear, and another goose

moves to the leadership position. On good teams, everyone has the opportunity to serve as a leader as

well as a follower.


In 1998, the opportunity arose to create a Federal Magnet School, with funding to enhance facilities

and train teachers to develop a specialized curriculum so inclusive that it would encourage families of

all cultural and economic backgrounds to cross the “color line” to attend this school. Cheryl and her staff

recognized the potential of the arts to become the unifying foundation of lesson plans in all subjects, and

the K-5 visual and performing arts curriculum was born. Dance, drama, music, and visual arts became

integral to all levels of teaching and learning. Thanks to Magnet funding and the BSEP tax measure, the

school itself was revived over the next five years, from structural upgrades for seismic safety to a greening

of the playground and garden.


A thriving, culturally rich, arts-infused, standards-based academic curriculum grew and blossomed in

the beautifully renovated facility, which in the ensuing years garnered many awards: California

Distinguished School of the Arts 2000, California Distinguished Schools, 2006, Title I Academic

Achievement Award 2009.


After Cheryl’s retirement in 2010, the geese in her little flock took wing as she had hoped; filling

lead roles in their areas of expertise, ensuring that the school continues to fly high in her absence. Popu-

lation demographics change, yet Malcolm X Elementary School continues to shine; a neighborhood gem,

a welcoming place for every child, family, and staff member to learn and grow.

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