Mark Salkind: The man behind the building


Photo by Niki King Fredel

Mark Salkind, blowing bubbles in the Page street “backyard.” February 2015.

   “If you had asked me when I was 14 years old, would I end up being a high school principal, I would have looked at you and said, ‘are you kidding?’”

   Head of the Urban School of San Francisco, Mark Salkind speaks as he sits across from me on a rainy Tuesday morning. We are at his large wooden conference table, next to the huge flat screen video conferencing TV l. It is 8:20 in the morning, and another busy day at the Urban School has begun.

   Salkind has been the Urban School’s head of school for the past 30 years, but his story at Urban begins much earlier, as a long-haired  13 year old, eager to start high school. In describing his first impressions of the school, Salkind recollects, and says, “It was a new school that was starting, a group of parents based in San Francisco, and they were starting the school and putting together the first founding faculty members. So I went in, and was interviewed by a couple of teachers that I really liked. They seemed really friendly and interested in who I was. And so, I became one of the first students.”

   During its earliest days, Salkind says, “Urban was just getting started, nothing was formal, established, set. I can remember reading something by John Steinbeck in 9th grade English …and some of the students said, ‘well gee, we’d love to read some more,’ so I can remember my English teacher, Bill Meyer, who lived in Tiburon at that point, he used to give me a ride home in a VW bus. We stopped at the Mill Valley Bus Depot and started looking at some other novels by Steinbeck, and picked them out and we were able to read them,” he continues, “So it was very spontaneous back then. A little bit more by the seat of your pants. Lots of student initiative — huge amounts of student initiative, because there weren’t as many programs already in place.”

   After graduating from Urban in 1969, Mark Salkind went onto Yale for an undergraduate degree.  As a child, Salkind was a serious oboe player. “I was trained as a classical musician. I was what would have been called a child prodigy,” Salkind says, “Oboe was my instrument. I played that for quite a while, all the way through college.”

   Music led Mark Salkind to “choose [Yale] in part because it had a really lively undergraduate music scene,” Salkind says, “It had a good orchestra, which I was a part of, which was great. My freshman year, we did a tour of France which was really cool over spring vacation. And there was a particular oboe teacher there at the graduate school of music that I was able to study with.” However, as Salkind continued at Yale, his main focus shifted to English Literature.

   After college, Salkind moved back to the Bay Area. “I thought I was going to get a doctorate, a PhD in English Literature at UC Berkeley, and I withdrew from that program after a year and I was working in a big music store in downtown Berkeley.”

   In 1980, Carl Munger  became the Urban School’s new Head of School. Salkind became involved with the school again through a fellow alumnus, who asked him to help find a new space for the school, which would be the Gumption building. Salkind says, “I remember my first impressions of the Gumption building. It was funky! I remember the Old Library area, there was always a little stage that was out in front of the tiny classroom where Mandarin is taught, [there was] this rough wood paneling on the walls… Now where there are office spaces and bathrooms, they were glassed-in and they were classrooms.”

   Soon after, Mark heard of an opening for a new music teacher. “I did apply,” says Salkind,  “I got to be one of the two finalists, but wasn’t chosen for the job. But I did get to know the head, Carl Munger, he was very nice, and called me up and said, ‘I’m really sorry it didn’t go your way, but you’d be great here in some capacity.’” At the time, the school was considering creating a program for students who were going into pre-professional work in ballet, music, theater, and visual arts, “and wanted to combine it with a good high school education, but provide more flexibility in their schedule.” Salkind became involved in the project: “I’d come in on Wednesdays, and I started working with a couple faculty members on this program, and Carl. So I committed a lot of time, wrote a grant proposal, which ended up getting funded for this thing called the Urban Arts Program. So that’s how I first got a job at Urban — I sort of created one. Now, we would call that entrepreneurial, but I’m not sure we would have then,” he laughs.

   In 1986, Munger retired, and Salkind applied, and ended up receiving, the position of Head of School. “I was 32 years old, which is pretty young for being a Head of School,” Salkind reflects, “I don’t think it was a standard career path. But I was gung-ho and full of enthusiasm.”

   In the 80’s, Salkind and the administration had a different set of problems than they do today. One of those issues was admissions: Salkind says,“There wasn’t as much demand for Urban; the reputation was not perceived in the same way, so it was sometimes seen, as in Dan Murphy’s famous line, as ‘the school of least resistance and last resort.’” He elaborates, “it was uneven then, meaning there were some really good teachers, and there were some not so good teachers. And if you were really engaged, and you wanted to participate and do all your work that was great, but kids could fall through the cracks pretty easily. Students didn’t really have to go to class, with seemingly not too many consequences. It was looser in some ways.” Because of it’s less than stellar reputation, Salkind and the rest of the admissions team at the time would “still be interviewing and trying to admit students [in the late summer] in order to make sure we could balance the budget, to pay the teachers.”

   Nowadays, Mark Salkind’s role at Urban is one of great breadth. Salkind works closely with the Board of Trustees, and attends every committee meeting. He is a part of balancing the budget, part of which is managing the tuition. Salkind has been a key player in increasing the financial aid budget, and in “reshaping the salary scale” so that newer teachers are paid more than in previous years. In addition, he says, “I’m a spokesperson sort of, in an ambassador role” for the school, giving many speeches to alumni, prospective parents, and to meetings of California independent school trustees and other Heads. Email is also a large part of the job: “It’s a huge number of emails,” Salkind admits, “I feel like between all the emails and meetings, there isn’t much else.”
   Even after so many years, Salkind is still working hard to make big changes to the student experience. The BlendEd program and the recent addition of the UrbanX labs are examples of recent initiatives that Salkind has been “really putting [his] shoulder behind.”

   Outside of his life at Urban, Salkind is still a music fanatic. “I still love music. I do a lot of listening.  I chair the board of a performing arts organization, called the New Century Chamber Orchestra,” he tells me, “I love the sound of an orchestra… if you have 96 people all playing together, it’s just incredible.” In addition to listening, Salkind has also gotten interested in high end music production, specifically, high resolution audio files: “Most people are playing things on MP3, which is very compressed,” Salkind says, but with high resolution audio files, “it’s going the opposite direction.”

   Salkind also enjoys frequent rides on his Peloton spin bike: “it streams spin classes, so they’re both archived or you can do a live one,” and “so yes, like an in-home SoulCycle,” Salkind answers me.

   Cooking is also a point of interest to Salkind, though he admits, “if you ask my wife, I’m not too active anymore, but I still will help always chopping and everything.” However, because of his interest in French cuisine, Mark states, “I cooked my way through ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ Julia Child’s seminal book, the whole first volume, almost everything.”
  After so many years, Salkind still finds it exciting to come to Urban each morning. “I get very energized about Urban and the (school’s) mission,” he says, and in terms of his work, “It’s varied, it’s diverse, it’s fresh.” Salkind tells me, “You know my wife says, ‘I can’t believe you’re still going in after all these years,’ and I say, ‘it’s still fresh, even walking into this office.’”