Published December 18, 2007
Volume 15, Number 12

Peter Van Court's Career Path Travels from a Small Business to the Business of Education

By Barbara Lewis
Network Editor

Peter Van Court came out of the private sector as a small business owner involved with global trade, marketing and sales and moved into the public sector as a teacher, technology coordinator, dean of students and principal. While growing up in Oakland and attending public school, however, a career in teaching and school administration was far from his mind. He attended college for two years and joined his father in business, spending the next 15 working with corporate America in the international trade arena.

As a manufacturer’s representative, Van Court helped develop the business of and had exclusive contracts with many high-profile companies such as Panasonic, Sharp, Jensen and Fuji. He set up distribution agreements and retail accounts throughout all of Northern California and Nevada and created after-sales service programs and conducted retail sales training as well. “It was a very extensive education for me in business, marketing, public relations and training,” Van Court recalls.

With the advent of the big box stores in the mid-1980s, Van Court realized he would have to undertake an entire organizational change of the company or do something else, which is what he did.

At the time, Van Court was living near Chabot College in Hayward and, one evening, visited its Career and Resource Center. “I was looking through resume-writing books because I’d never really written a resume for myself personally when one of the counselors approached me. She herself had a very nontraditional career in the Air Force (she was a full-bird colonel) and related well to me. She looked at my resume draft and offered me important insight into myself. She made the connection between my business experience and me as a person, noting how my work had been a composite of training and teaching and how much of those functions had gone into the organizational effort that I’d built over time. She suggested, ‘Why don’t you take a little time for yourself and go back to college?’

Van Court took her advice and organized his life around being a student. “I really enjoyed my college experience as an older learner,” he remembers. “After being in business for so many years, it was interesting, entertaining and expedient. It was fun! I changed my mind set completely, because now my business was learning and developing myself toward the person I was to become.”

After attending Chabot College and Cal State East Bay, Van Court entered a masters program in instructional technology at San Francisco State where he developed educational software. “Instructional technology sounds like it’s about computers, but it’s actually the science of how people learn,” he notes. “The tie into computers for me was my team’s research into the interface of products and how user friendly they were for consumers.”

Student days behind him, Van Court’s next challenge was to establish the learning environment for the San Francisco Conservation Corps, the first urban non-profit job and academic training corps in the United States. It had been founded by Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1984 for young San Franciscans, ages 18-26, who had “fallen off the radar and had decided to get back on track.” “It was a great experience,” he reflects. “I set up computer labs and networks, designed their school-to-work and GED curricula and helped them become a charter school, which they still are today. I found that my private industry and public school background had embedded in me a real sense of priorities that had helped shape me as a goals-oriented administrator focused on student outcome and success for all.”

From there, Van Court went to the San Francisco Unified School District as a curriculum and technology integration specialist, designing networks and teaching teachers how to use various applications. During that time, the District asked Van Court to become part of an administrative cohort, a group of people selected for a two-year training program to become administrators. “It was a great program, taught through San Francisco State that utilized the district’s specialists as its teaching staff. For example, the human resources section was taught by the district’s HR manager, who used real life scenarios and situations in her presentations. Most importantly, by the time we moved into administrative positions, we’d already established relationships with the entire infrastructure of the district, which helped us immensely in doing our jobs.”

Those administrative positions came in the form of dean and head counselor of pupil services at San Francisco’s Luther Burbank Middle School and then as assistant principal at Lowell High School, the largest and highest performing school in the city.

Van Court found the pace at Lowell to be incredibly fast with hundreds of programs to be administered. At the same time, it was also a “wonderful environment” where alumni who were Nobel laureates, company founders and political leaders all were eager to come back to address the students.

“I wanted to be on the same page as my family and elementary-aged children and eventually decided to consider a move away from Lowell and San Francisco and closer to my home in Castro Valley. At the same time I realized that, after adult, high, and middle schools, elementary school was the last frontier for me!”

Once Van Court began investigating the elementary arena and principal positions, he fell in love with the children. He remembers, “I wondered what had kept me away and why it took me so long to discover that this is the best possible place to be. The children are budding blossoms, just sprouting. It’s very exciting to help develop their young minds and help them become productive, well-adjusted people. It’s more than I ever expected.”

Established in 1977, Carden West School is a private, non-sectarian, non-profit school offering fully-licensed, academic-based preschool for children two to five years old, and elementary school kindergarten through 5th grade. It also offers extended care and a summer day camp program. “We have a great deal to offer parents, especially those who live or work in Hacienda,” Van Court notes. “We have an outstanding facility and an ethnically diverse and friendly high tech learning environment and we offer at the curbside service for drop-offs and pick-ups every day. Interested parents may visit for a tour any Tuesday or Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to 12 noon or by appointment by calling (925) 463-6060, and we have two Open Houses scheduled on January 22 and February 20, 2008, between 6:30 – 8:00 pm. Parents can find more information available anytime at www.cardenwest.org.

“At Carden West, my focus is on offering a great curriculum with great teachers. We are building on our past successes to enhance learning opportunities both in the classroom and beyond. This has worked out well for all students, especially those who have potential beyond their current grade level that may not have been accommodated in their prior education setting. Gifted and Talented are one group of underserved students that we are addressing and ensure enriched opportunities for all children. With high expectations for all children we know that the ‘all ships rise together to a higher level’ theory works,” Van Court says.

Van Court attributes Carden West’s success to continuous collaboration with the faculty, small class size with individualized instruction, and teaching to multiple senses. In addition to a rigorous core curriculum, the school offers three world languages (Spanish, French and Mandarin), two computer labs with computer, music, art and physical education subject specific teachers.

“One of the lessons that I have learned working in a wide range of diverse communities is not to rush to judgment on anything,” Van Court relates. “Things are not always what they appear and building a high functioning learning community involves all of its members collectively working together. Here, every single person has a voice and we listen. I believe many successful businesses have been built on the same premise.”


Also in this issue ...