Profile: getting the scoop on Mark Salkind, Urban’s head of school


Mark Salkind was Urban’s ping-pong champion in 1983. Salkind attended Urban and has now been its head of school for 25 years.

Annakai Geshlider

Here’s a legend that’s ready to bust: Mark Salkind, Urban’s head of school, is not a phantom.

Students see him at the admissions Open House when visiting Urban as prospective students. They hear his words at the all-school meeting on the first day of school. Sometimes, students catch him in the halls. While Salkind may occasionally seem like a roaming ghost, Urban has at its forefront a very real man.

He’s been here for 25 years. Haven’t you been wondering about the man in the tweed coat all that time? You’re in luck: We sat down with your head of school to learn more about the man behind the pingpong paddle.

Salkind, 58, has been at Urban as long as one possibly can be: After graduating from Marin Country Day School in 1966, he joined the school’s first-ever freshman class, along with 22 other ninth and 10th graders. Dan Murphy, history teacher, taught Salkind, who says Murphy “was a great teacher.”

Salkind liked going to Urban in its old location on Divisadero and Washington streets in Pacific Heights. “It could be very spontaneous, we were doing things for the first time; it was a school without lots of rules, if any,” he chortles. “And (we had) teachers who really cared about students.”

Salkind’s days consisted of frequent pingpong playing, set designing, and acting in Shakespeare plays. He even launched the first Urban newspaper with a fellow classmate; some few copies may still be preserved in the dungeons of Urban, though he is not sure where. But Salkind’s area of expertise lay with the oboe.

To put it lightly, Salkind was an oboe wonder. His parents taught piano and he grew up playing music. At age 13, Salkind auditioned in New York for Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. For the uninformed, Bernstein, director of the New York Philharmonic, composed and conducted music for the musical “West Side Story.” Salkind was selected to appear with the New York Philharmonic on a nationally televised broadcast; he can remember a classmate coming to school with the “TV Guide” in hand, excited to see Salkind’s name printed there.

After majoring in English literature at Yale University (as well as playing his trusty oboe in the orchestra), Salkind decided to get a doctorate in English literature at University of California, Berkeley. He left after a year and worked at a music store in Berkeley, selling sheet music.

Salkind sustained his love of music by taking up piano. This must have contributed to his current “little-known hobby slash obsession”: a “very large CD collection, probably at least 5,000 CDs,” Salkind laughs. “It’s almost all classical. It’s what I know most about, and (it’s) probably closest to my heart and passion. It’s still a big part of my life.”

Kindergarteners often think their teacher lives at school, so students should be pardoned for thinking Salkind was born Urban’s head of school. How did he come to sit at his position of honcho?

Urban faculty basketball team in the winter of 1983. Back row, left to right: Richard Lautze, Grant Ditzler holding daughter Lenora, Peter Ashley, Henry Picciotto. Middle row: LeRoy Votto and bob Houghteling. Front row: Sam Lewis, Mark Salkind, Bernard Farges.

Salkind met an Urban art teacher who encouraged him to apply for a music teacher position. After he didn’t get the job, the school director (before heads, legs or other appendages of school, there were merely directors), Carl Munger, invited Salkind to work on the art program. Salkind wrote grant proposals and got funding, resulting in his first full-time job at Urban.

Salkind used to teach a course on the Renaissance that combined English and history. “It was a subject that was really a passion of mine,” he says. He also taught Shakespeare and music classes.

In the early 80s, Munger took Salkind under his wing as his assistant. Munger gave Salkind a lot of opportunities because he was stepping down. Munger retired in 1986, and Salkind applied for the job. Though he had to compete with other candidates, he became head of school at 32.

“No one grows up wanting to be a high school principal,” Salkind said. “It wasn’t something I set out to pursue.” But since he attended Urban and had been working there, Salkind knew a lot about the school and wanted to make it better. “I was so passionate that I wanted to do this and fully convinced I could do it.”

So what exactly does the head of school do? Crucial stuff: hiring, planning for Urban’s future, fundraising along with thinking through how the school communicates to the public. Salkind meets with representatives from committees like the board of trustees and curriculum committee to help them set goals. Right now, Salkind is working on three main goals as part of Urban’s Vision 2013 plan: teach students more about environmental literacy; revise the service learning program; and develop global focus throughout Urban’s curriculum.

Contrary to a kindergartener’s assumptions, it also turns out Salkind has a life outside of school. In fact, his-outside-of-Urban passions are numerous. Although he doesn’t play the oboe anymore, Salkind still loves music and sometimes plays the piano. He goes to the lots of concerts, as well as the symphony, opera, and ballet. He plays the occasional game of pingpong. “I’m very competitive,” he adds.

He loves to go to museums, and he takes photos, mostly nature landscapes. Salkind had the chance to do this over the summer, when he and his new wife, Miranda, hiked in Colorado and Idaho’s Sawtooth Range, which were “beautiful, just incredible.”

For Salkind, the job does not get old. “The school’s evolved, so I’ve continued learning,” he says. “The opportunities and challenges change.”

Ah, but that is not all. What was once The Man in the Tweed Coat is now undeniably human and a good cook to boot:

Salkind has “cooked (his) way … through “Mastering the art of French Cooking” by Julia Child.” He has shared with Urban his favorite recipe; all you have to do is visit to discover Mark’s delightful dish.