Mica Peak High School principal Kamiel Youseph was looking for a way to motivate his students to do well in their classes, but somehow promising a pizza party wasn’t enough. Instead, the needle-phobic principal promised he’d get a tattoo if 90% of students passed their classes each quarter. They delivered.
“There’s two things I get scared of,” Youseph said. “One is needles. One is flying. I’ve never thought of getting a tattoo.”
But he decided he needed to get out of his comfort zone and promised the tattoo during one of the school’s all-student weekly meetings at the beginning of the school year. He said he had a moment of wondering what it was he’d just done, until he heard the reaction of students. “There was an excitement to it,” he said.
Mica Peak is an alternative school in the Central Valley School District and many of the 140 students came there because traditional high school just wasn’t working for them, Youseph said. And by the time they get to Mica Peak, they’ve often failed several classes. “We have students who are short 10, 12, 15 credits,” he said.
Because of their struggles and because of their lack of credits, students often feel defeated. Youseph makes it a point to meet with each new student for an hour to talk about their goals and get to know them. “I know every student, almost every family, as a principal,” he said.
It’s all about encouraging students to keep working toward graduation, Youseph said. To that end, staff will celebrate achievements such as two weeks of perfect attendance from a student who has struggled to show up to school. “We try to get those wins, those intentional fist bumps,” he said. “We just want them to graduate. We don’t care how long it takes.”
The normal number of students who pass their classes each quarter usually hovers around 70%, Youseph said. He wanted to challenge the students to do better, but knew that it wasn’t realistic to expect a 100% pass rate, particularly as students struggled in the wake of the pandemic.
In the first quarter, 94% of students passed their classes. In the second and third quarters, the pass rate was 92%. Students are on track to top 90% in the fourth and final quarter as well. “Honestly, we really haven’t seen it like this,” he said.
Student Kylie Johnson is part of the school’s leadership team. She said Youseph’s promise to get a tattoo energized her. “Kamiel is not a tattoo guy,” she said. “I remember looking at my friends. I was shocked. Then I started whooping and hollering.”
Throughout the year, she encouraged her friends to do well in their classes. She would remind them that the principal would get a tattoo if they did, so they should really turn in that assignment. “It just shows his dedication and loyalty to the school and the students,” she said.
Johnson said that students at the school sometimes have a hard time trusting adults, but the students know that Youseph cares for them. “He genuinely cares, you know,” she said.
Youseph asked student Thea Page, a talented artist who also created a school T-shirt, to design a tattoo for him. She’s still working on the tattoo, which will be about 4 inches long and put on his forearm. “It definitely needs a wolverine in it,” said Page, referring to the school’s mascot. “I want to incorporate flowers.”
Youseph said he trusts her to design whatever she wants. “I’m going to go with it,” he said.
Though Youseph has found himself asking questions about the process, including how painful it will be, he’s determined to see it through. “Internally, I’m struggling, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
He plans to get the tattoo done on a Saturday before school ends with his wife documenting the process. Then he’ll unveil his artwork to the students.
“It’s more of a testament to the students,” he said. “This is the result of hard work.”
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