Not Your Average Joe: The Experiences That Shaped SR’s New Principal


Estelle Engelskirchen, Contributor

It’s Joe Dominguez’s first Homecoming at San Rafael High School, and the excitement throughout the community has been growing all week. A spirit week, rally, parade, and football game are among the many events incorporated into the celebration of the beginning of the new school year.

The Homecoming spirit invaded the week’s Friday administration team recap meeting. Principal Joe Dominguez, Assistant Principals Armando Oseguera and Casey Shannon, and Dean of Students Alison Zampino discussed everything from a possible shelter-in-place drill to inputting information on Aeries, but they were briefly interrupted by the arrival of an old yet freshly painted red truck visible through Dominguez’s window, which overlooks the whole quad.

The meeting was briefly thrown off track as the four joked about Dominguez driving the red truck. As principal, he would lead San Rafael’s Homecoming Parade, driving a precious cargo: Glenn Dennis, former principal of SR and the Grand Marshal of the 2022 Homecoming.

When told that the truck’s broken fuel line was just repaired and that its steering and brakes were not ideal, the group laughed even more. But Dominguez dismissed the issue when he quipped, “If I can drive a school bus, I can drive that little red thing.”

Though young, Mr. Dominguez has a wealth of experiences that influence his leadership as Principal, from driving school buses to teaching and being an assistant principal. He brings life to the role through his participation in spirit days, attendance of athletic events, greetings in the hallways, and especially, with his warm smile.

As principal, Dominguez doesn’t have an “average day.” Every day is full of unique, unpredictable problems to solve or challenges to overcome, often holding Dominguez and other administrators in meetings and other tasks until late into the day. For example, in the days prior to the Homecoming meeting, Dominguez had been at the district office for negotiations with the teacher union, as well as at a Board of Managers meeting for all the public high school principals in Northern California. In that time, he also met with countless other students, staff, or important community members, but still managed to get out of his office and walk around during school brunch and lunch, even all the way to Montecito Plaza, to familiarize himself with the community and the students.

“I knew that Principals were extremely busy before I got into this role, but the number of 12+ hour days that we regularly have to work every week has taken some time to get used to,” says Armando Oseguera, one of SR’s assistant principals who works closely with Mr. Dominguez.

As he would proudly tell anyone who asks, Joe Dominguez is from Mesa, Arizona. He lived there throughout his childhood, college years, and several years of teaching. He moved out to the Bay Area three years ago, but still speaks fondly of past Homecomings, among other things, from his home state.

Dominguez developed a love for public school education early in his life, in part thanks to his mother’s occupation as a school bus driver for the public school district in their area. Dominguez himself was employed by the same school district as a carpet cleaner during the summers between his years at Westwood High School, also in Mesa, Arizona.

In high school, he found a love for math and leadership, the two subjects he would later teach at Westwood, the school from which he graduated. With a difficult process yet gratifying results, solving problems satisfied him in a way that kept him interested. In tutoring his friends in their study group, he discovered the value and satisfaction in helping somebody else solve a problem.

“When I would have difficulty [with math] in middle school and high school,” Dominguez said, “I just loved that feeling I would get when I finally got it.”

He credits his strong teachers for convincing him to become involved in the student leadership class (like ASB), which helped him to see his potential as a leader, inspiring him to become a teacher and give back to his community what they gave to him. The class also left him with a strong sense of school spirit and a tendency to go all-out for spirit days.

These lessons and qualities play out in the way he conducts himself now. In meetings, he listens attentively to whoever is speaking, giving them time to explain an issue they need his help with- collecting all the variables before he offers a well-thought out solution.

“I really like how he takes time to break down situations and be considerate of different opinions and perspectives,” says SR’s Dean of Students Alison Zampino. “He’s good at reminding our team to slow things down when we start to get overwhelmed with all the things that can happen in a day…or week!”

He has no need to raise his voice to make himself known because, as a confident and well-spoken leader, he garners the respect of everyone in any room he walks into (even if it’s Wacky Wednesday and he’s decked out in the craziest outfit you’ll ever see).

Following his graduation from Westwood High School, Dominguez attended Arizona State University where he earned a bachelor’s in Education and later a master’s in Educational Leadership and Administration. He then returned to his alma mater to become a teacher of math and leadership- the two subjects he’d loved most.

As a teacher, Dominguez enjoyed connecting with his students and inspiring them to become leaders. He wanted to replicate that on a more widespread level, so he decided to pursue a position as the assistant principal of another high school in the area. He was on the fast track to principal when he realized that he’d never spent much time outside of Arizona. He thought, ‘Maybe before becoming principal and really getting locked in, I’ll try to live somewhere different.’

This landed him in San Francisco and in the job of Assistant Principal at Lowell High School, one of the most prestigious public high schools in California. His first year was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, which, among other factors, greatly disrupted Lowell and the San Francisco Unified School District. Dominguez became the principal for the 2021-2022 school year- the first fully in-person year since the pandemic- and found that the situation with the school district was greatly undermining the work he wanted to do as principal.

“I had a really difficult time connecting and getting the resources I needed from the school district,” he said, “For the first time, I was having a hard time liking my job. It was rough for me, I’ve always loved this.”

He resigned at the end of the school year, and was considering moving back to Arizona when he learned that San Rafael High School needed a new principal.

While interviewing and researching to write this story, I attended several events and meetings where Mr. Dominguez spoke. One of which was the 8th Grade Parent & Student Night. Mr. Dominguez told the students and parents essentially the same story he told me: about the “little gem” that was San Rafael High School, and how “it was everything [he’d] ever wanted.”

Despite it being the second or third time I’d heard the story, and certainly the millionth time he’d told it, his voice still contained as much emotion as I imagine it did the first time he told it. He spoke simply yet with warm fondness of the spirit, traditions, and people that drew him to the school.

At a time when he was doubting his love for public education, SRHS “reinvigorated” it.

Mr. Dominguez is now about 3 months into his first school year at San Rafael and is familiarizing himself with the campus and surrounding community. Despite his busy schedule of meetings to get to know everybody that he can, Dominguez seems to be everywhere- from the quad at brunch, to classrooms, even across the street to Montecito Plaza to monitor students’ behavior and get a sense of how the community functions.

He has no large projects that he’s working on right now, and for good reason. He explained that he’d promised the staff that he would spend the first semester and most of the first year getting to know as much as he can about the school and how it functions before he would try to institute any big changes.

He explained that this stemmed mostly from an experience he had as a teacher in Arizona. “At [my school], we had a new principal come in one year saying, ‘We’re gonna change this school, we’re gonna turn it around!’” Dominguez didn’t like this. “As a former student, and a teacher that loved that school, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, we have work we need to do at this campus, but there’s nothing wrong with us… You don’t even know us, you don’t even know my name!’”

Mr. Winton, an SR alum, longtime history teacher, and the VP/site representative of the San Rafael Federation of Teachers, believes this is a “good attitude.” He’s been impressed with Mr. Dominguez’s efforts so far, such as with a new system in which administrators come into teachers’ classrooms to observe and check in, then deliver a handwritten thank-you note to the teachers afterwards.

“It’s not like an evaluation or anything, just an informal stopping-in,” says Winton. “It’s been nice to have the administrators from the new building into the classrooms, and I think it’s important for students, too, to see that administrators are involved.”

He also appreciates the dinner that Dominguez organized for the staff at SR football’s Community Night game, a tradition brought from his high school in Arizona.

Beyond his first year, Dominguez’s goals in education are to be a supportive figure for students. Even though his schedule doesn’t permit a lot of time for the individualized support he was able to provide as a teacher, he hopes that SR students still feel comfortable coming to him with any problems, or at least find support in simply what he represents.

“I like [messages from past students] when students thank me for being authentically myself, which helps them feel like they can be themselves as well,” says Dominguez. “This has come out in various different ways, just for me in my identity as a person with a disability- a physical disability that’s visible-, a person in the LGBTQ community, or a Latino person… I’ve received some really nice messages over the years.”

He hopes to, with time, make the many opportunities at SR available to a wider array of students. He believes someone shouldn’t have to be “lucky” to get involved in harder classes or cool opportunities, they should always know what’s available to them.

“I’m most passionate about creating systems in a large school that make it easy for people to access everything we have to offer,” he says.

Happy Homecoming, Mr. Dominguez.