New San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens is building relationships with teachers and students to help improve instruction and student achievement. “We know we have a great group of students and want to challenge them,” he says.  (Nick St.Oegger / Noozhawk photo)

San Marcos High School may have a new principal this year, but Ed Behrens is hardly the new kid on campus. Behrens spent the past 14 years as an assistant principal at San Marcos, and it is clear that he has a passion for the home of the Royals.

“The school has always had a great Royal spirit,” Behrens said. “There is a spirit of collaboration among the staff and students.”

As principal, Behrens plans to be hands-on in that collaborative process.

“My goal is to be here for the students, and for the students to know who I am,” he said.

One way he plans to achieve this is through his Lunch with the Principal program.

“Every week I’ll meet with a different student group,” he explained. “We’ll talk about what they like (about San Marcos), what they want to change, and their vision for themselves and for the school.”

Behrens grew up in Orange County, where he ran cross country and track for Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. After graduating from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in history, he applied for an eclectic array of jobs — from a sales rep at Black & Decker to an investigator with NCIS.

He attributes his interest in education to his high school running coach, who instilled in him the importance of setting goals.

“I was able to achieve at a high level because of his mentorship, and I wanted to go back and share that with others,” Behrens said.

He began teaching in Orange County before moving to Santa Barbara. Behrens taught English Language Development at Santa Barbara High School for six years, became chairman of his department, and joined multiple school committees.

“I found that I was interested in what was going on globally at the school, not just what was happening in my classroom,” he said.

He returned to school and earned a master’s degree in education leadership and policy studies, after which he was hired as an assistant principal at San Marcos High.

One focus Behrens has as principal is working with the teachers to improve instruction and student achievement.

“We know we have a great group of students and want to challenge them,” he said.

To this end, Behrens worked with the teaching staff to repurpose the school’s late-start Thursdays.

“We’re now spending that time sharing teaching best practices to improve the quality of instruction,” he said.

One outward sign of the changes happening on campus is the construction in what was once a staff and visitor parking lot that housed an island of portable classrooms. Thanks to the passage of Measure Q, a $75 million bond approved by voters in 2010, San Marcos is replacing the 12 portable classrooms with a new wing that will provide a high-profile cornerstone to the school at 4750 Hollister Ave., at the intersection with Turnpike Road.

Something that is unlikely to change is the school’s block schedule. Although some families are wary, Behrens has only good things to say about it.

“The block schedule is very forward thinking,” he said.

The academic-focus block schedule, as it’s known at San Marcos, allows students to focus on fewer classes at a time. Behrens highlights the advantage of balancing more challenging courses between the two college-style semesters.

“It makes it more doable,” he said.

Students seem to agree.

“The feedback we receive from alums is that they feel prepared for a college schedule,” he said.

The system has many advantages for teachers, as well.

“The 90-minute block enables teachers to go more in-depth,” he said, using science labs as an example — the longer period contains enough time to set up, complete an experiment and debrief.

In a time of budget cuts and increased class sizes, the block schedule reduces the number of students with whom a teacher interacts each day.

“There are 105 student/teacher contacts per-day at San Marcos,” compared to 175 in a traditional schedule, Behrens said.

“Sometimes the decision (of where to send a child to high school) is made without visiting the school,” he added. “We like to invite people to make an informed decision. We encourage anyone with questions to come and learn (about San Marcos).”

When speaking of the school’s strengths Behrens is quick to acknowledge his colleagues.

“There is a great cohesion among the staff,” he said.

In fact, San Marcos is home to the current Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year, Desa Mandarino; two previous Santa Barbara County Distinguished Educators, Jamie DeVries and Philip Levien; and previous California Teacher of the Year, Eric Burrows.

The school’s pride in accomplishment and sense of family is important to Behrens, who, with his wife, Meghan, has two children: 5-year-old Blake, a kindergarten student, and 3-year-old Brynn.

With the school year now in full swing, Behrens is eager to see his new ideas in action.

“I’m excited about our new programs,” he said with a smile. “I’m excited about our strong existing programs.

“The school is moving in a good direction. We’re all in education because we’re passionate about doing the best for students, and this is an opportunity to do that better.”

Noozhawk intern Jessica Haro (San Marcos High School Class of 2003) can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.