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SHE'S JUST BEEN A SUPER SUPER.

Byline: Karen Maeshiro Staff Writer

LAKE HUGHES - Hughes-Elizabeth Lakes Union School District's one school is located in the foothills between Palmdale and Gorman, built on a hillside between Lake Hughes and Lake Elizabeth.

The school affords a panoramic view of the surrounding Sierra Pelona and San Gabriel mountains, one that can be enjoyed by Penny Mertens when she is not too busy juggling the responsibilities that come with being the superintendent and principal of the 435-student district.

``When you work in a small school district, you have to wear so many hats,'' said Mertens, 55. ``You have to do so many things. You can't really hand things to other people to do.

``In a small district, you really get experience in every area of running a school, particularly in being superintendent and principal. I think that's the most challenging thing but definitely the most interesting part of it as well. You really do learn something new every week. I love the diversity in the job.''

Mertens has been superintendent and principal of the kindergarten- through-eighth grade district since April, taking over for Robert Haley, who left to take a job in Northern California.

She had been the district's vice principal and coordinator of student services for four years and, before that, a part-time counselor for three years.

Board President Lola Skelton Mantooth praised Mertens' performance on the job.

``We think she's wonderful,'' Mantooth said.

``Having Dr. Haley leave and in this time of turmoil throughout the state and in education, she has made our transition just so much easier. She is a known entity not only to the board but to the community and staff. Oftentimes when you change superintendents, you have to find that footing again. With her, we haven't had to do that.''

The Hughes district serves children from the rural communities of Lake Hughes, Elizabeth Lake and Green Valley, as well as part of Leona Valley and Pine Canyon.

It's a district where, at an elevation of 3,300 feet, the school expects several days of school closure a year due to snowfall, and the school newsletter issues a snake season alert, reminding students to stay away from the bushes around the playground and to tell an adult if they should happen to see a snake.

The students scored 735 on the 2002 API, and the school's 18 classroom teachers are all fully credentialed.

``The single most important advantage of working in such a small school district is that there is no bureaucracy, no red tape,'' Mertens said. ``If somebody has a complaint, whether a teacher or a parent, they don't have to call for an appointment in another building. My office is in the school office.

``You get to know the teachers and the student families very well. You understand so much better any problems or concerns of the school community.''

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Mertens obtained a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley, and a master's degree in counseling and educational psychology from California State University, Northridge.

She was recruited out of Berkeley by a school district in Scarsdale, N.Y., to teach English and social studies. She returned to California after two years and worked in the Las Virgenes Unified School District as a teacher and counselor.

Before coming to the Hughes district, she also worked as dean of students at Immaculate Heart High School, a private school in Los Angeles, and as a counselor on a consulting basis with the Pasadena Unified School District.

Mertens said she was inspired to go into education by her mother, who reared seven children before going back to school to become a teacher.

Her father, who worked for the Technicolor company, and the older children helped take care of the younger siblings and the home so that her mother could attend classes, Mertens said.

``I come from a long line of educators,'' she said. ``My mother worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District as a teacher. She taught first grade in downtown Los Angeles and loved it. My grandmother started the first little local library in a small town called Kennebec, South Dakota.''

Mertens has a twin sister who is a special education program specialist in Northern California, a younger sister who is a specialist working with hearing impaired children in the Las Virgenes district, and another younger sister who is a marriage and family counselor who does counseling in Sonoma County public schools.

Mertens, a resident of Elizabeth Lake, is married to retired Los Angeles city firefighter Ralph LaPreziosa. The couple have two children and two granddaughters.

Karen Maeshiro, (661) 267-5744

karen.maeshiro(at)dailynews.com

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Penny Mertens, superintendent for the 435-student Hughes-Elizabeth Lake Union School District, says that, in her job, ``You have to do so many things. You can't really hand things to other people to do.''

Jeff Goldwater/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 27, 2003
Words:822
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