by Leslie Layton
For the past 20 years, Fair View High School Principal Bernie Vigallon has roamed his continuation school campus and beyond, busting pot-smokers and herding kids to class. At the end of the school day, he often visited families, sometimes bought them groceries and on one occasion, pulled a student who was missing the critical days prior to graduation from a den of methamphetamine use.
Vigallon, who during his 30-year tenure in the Chico Unified School District came to be known as “Mr. Vig,” retires June 3 as Fair View principal and as director of alternative education for the district. In the latter position, Vigallon built a program that now serves 500 students — kids who suffer from alienation or abuse, who struggle with learning issues, or who became immersed in delinquency or drugs.
Many people believe 63-year-old Vigallon has built Butte County’s most effective crime-prevention program; his legacy is one of the state’s largest alternative education programs in a medium-sized school district.
David McKay, who will move up from the assistant principal position to assume leadership at Fair View, said that many districts run alternative ed out of a “portable or two in the parking lot.”
Chico Unified, like other California school districts, has pared down its budget for continuation schooling as it struggles to stretch shrinking dollars for some 13,000 students. But while some small school districts have virtually eliminated programs, CUSD seems determined to sustain what Vigallon built.
When Vigallon took over Fair View in 1988, it had a graduating class of only about 15 students. Last week, 137 students graduated from the school, where 82 percent of the students are identified as socio-economically disadvantaged.
At the May 25 graduation, senior Shaquaya Henry asked her fellow students how many of them had found their lives changed by Vigallon. Dozens of arms shot up in the Masonic Lodge auditorium. Yet, there are apparently hundreds or even thousands of testimonies to that effect.
Henry, who now plans to become a teacher through the state-funded Rural Teacher Pathway program tailored to youth from disadvantaged communities, said that when she came to Fair View, she was a “habitual ditcher” who “used drugs.”
“I soon learned that failure at Fair View was not acceptable,” Henry said in her speech.
At his last Fair View graduation as principal, Vigallon was introduced as “the Godfather.”
In fact, Vigallon is part village godfather, part inspirational teacher and part tough, charismatic coach. But the paradox is that while Vigallon can steal a stage with his bellowing voice, biting humor and stories of redemption, he shuns praise and shifts the spotlight, whenever he can, to his family, staff, or students themselves.
Vigallon seems to know that the future of the program he built rests not on the force of his personality, but on the staff, district and the community’s willingness to support schools that give teens second and third chances to rise above what are often tough circumstances.
“These kids have the same aspirations as other kids, but their original schools were too big, too fast,” Vigallon said. “We really slow things down. Here, they get to become somebody.”
One of his former students who has become somebody came from a family who was “deep into methamphetamine,” Vigallon said. When she began missing days that were jeopardizing her graduation, Vigallon and the school psychologist paid a visit to her home. They hesitated uneasily outside the house, then knocked and entered.
Inside, Vigallon said there were about 15 “hard-core guys” who didn’t see why the girl needed an education. Vigallon and his colleague were able to escort the girl from the house. They bought her clothes, and at graduation, watched her walk the stage with her classmates. She went to community college and now works with teens in this area.
During his tenure with CUSD, Vigallon opened the Center for Alternative Learning for middle-school students and the Academy for Change for young people who have been expelled from public schools or sentenced to time in juvenile hall. He’s seen students fail at Fair View, but return seven or eight years later to complete work for a diploma through the district’s GED program that he worked to expand.
Without the continuation programs, Vigallon said it’s reasonable to assume that “a segment of these kids who have had a difficult past would end up in incarceration of some sort.”
“There isn’t any other safety net for many of these kids,” Vigallon said. “You can’t compete with a community college student for a job, so what are you going to end up doing? Communities that don’t have these programs have higher crime rates.”
Eliminating alternative ed and paring back music and athletics in California’s public schools, Vigallon warned, will lead to increased demand for services in the juvenile justice system, behavioral health and social welfare.
As a youngster, Vigallon was a poor student prone to fighting who persisted in east Oakland schools because of his love of football. His father, the son of Spanish immigrants, worked in construction, received his first pair of shoes at age 8 and knew nothing about college.
But Vigallon earned two master’s degrees as he became increasingly passionate about working with young people who come from tough, humble and multicultural backgrounds like his own.
A CUSD administrator said Vigallon has spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money assisting students. He’s bought bikes, bus passes and food for his students when he felt they needed those things to survive or succeed.
Deputy District Attorney Brent Redelsperger, who heads the juvenile division of the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, said Vigallon’s reference letters for young people are written selectively and therefore, taken seriously.
“The courts have a lot of respect for him,” Redelsperger said. “He has a soft heart, but has been good at knowing which kids were taking responsibility for themselves. We’d take at face value what he said.”
The alternative ed programs are based on goal-setting, accountability and recognition when students achieve objectives. Every year, Vigallon has received a half-dozen or so visitors from school districts elsewhere in the state. In 1997, he was named “Director of the Year” by the California Continuation Education Association.
For 30 years, Vigallon has worked 50 to 60 hours a week, shepherding students while building a program that would survive his departure. In the past seven years, he’s struggled to maintain and grow the program even while losing a dozen staffers to budget cuts. The staff-student ratio, he said, has increased from 20 to 1 to 35 to 1, making the battle against truancy all the tougher.
For three years, the man he groomed to succeed him shared his small Fair View office. During the office-sharing, McKay said he watched Vigallon form “profound connections” with some students, came to understand the value of credibility and learned that some of his boss’s tricks can’t be copied.
“Whenever there was a bad situation, or a near crisis, I found that he had always gotten one in the bank with a person, or with a family, or with a community group,” McKay said. “He’s a master at building and sustaining relationships. Trust is a huge element of Vig.”
But in some ways, Vigallon is enigmatic and inimitable, and on occasion, McKay said “he should be wearing a huge ‘Do not try this at home’ warning label.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 2 Chico News & Review. Leslie Layton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org