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Angell left as football coach in 2006, in search of a new challenge. Two years later, he came back. "I missed being around John Swett," he recalls. "I spent my whole life here." After all, the John Swett Unified School District has only one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. When Angell was a student, forty seniors in his class had attended all thirteen years together. "By that time," he says, "you're a lot more like brothers and sisters than just friends."
Angell not only remains in contact with his old pals, he sees them nearly every day. All this togetherness is what he thinks made his team strong. "There's nothing to do here except play football. And we told the kids we need you in the weight room every day. Where else were they going to go? ... There's no fast food here, there's no store down the street, you're not going anywhere to eat lunch, so you bring your own. That's not such a bad thing. And there's just the school — and it's done pretty well, I guess."
But football was only part of what Angell tried to teach. "I mean, I was the guy lining the field, cutting the grass, really probably more of a dad than a coach." The kids saw his commitment, and when he called on them for the same kind of effort, he got it.
"We couldn't compete with De La Salle, but we had a good little program here. Some of the kids playing here didn't have a real stable family home, and maybe we provided that. We went on those bus trips and we'd spend the night after driving up to McKinleyville with three coaches and thirty ballplayers. The kids had to police themselves. We had a few team captains and they'd take care of things; never had a problem once."
Angell is prouder of that than he is of his winning seasons.
Dean Colombo serves as an informal historian of all things John Swett. "We were designed by the same guy who did San Francisco's City Hall. When they built it they imagined it on a scale of a small Ivy League college." Now, its red brick exterior prompts many outsiders to guess "prison" or "insane asylum" when they pass by without close inspection.
Looking around the campus, what strikes a visitor is not that this is one of the oldest schools in the East Bay but rather that it is one of the oddest. The demographics don't look that different from the neighboring schools in West Contra Costa Unified; the students here could pass for students in Hercules or Pinole. No ethnic group claims a majority on campus. White students make up a thin plurality, with black and Latino students each comprising about 30 percent of the school population. "There's not a lot of gang stuff going on," notes Kevin Doss, the junior varsity coach. "The different ethnic groups kind of all melt into one here."
In a place where a house can still be had for as little as $200,000, the students enrolled at John Swett are at the high end of the lower middle class. But in an age of high anxiety about schoolyards nationwide, the vibe here calls on a kind of faith. No one yells at students to get to class — and yet they do. The overall feeling is that of amiable cooperation. The sole copy machine has a hand-lettered sign telling students that they cannot run copies and yet, in an hour's time, more than half a dozen students come in and get permission to make multiple copies.
In addition to serving as the school's student council adviser, Colombo also is the assistant band director — one of two band directors at a school with fewer than 600 students. The school's trophy case makes clear what a vital role that band plays here. Band trophies occupy all the space, while the sports gimcracks are relegated to lower-profile hallway cases. Even Angell notes how important band is to the school. "When I was playing football, I was also playing in the band — I mean during the same game." Angell says there is no question that band is bigger than football at John Swett, and the former linebacker and drummer says his coach let him take off the pads during halftime and join the other musicians for their intermission performance. "I never let one of my players do that," he says with a laugh.
Being in the band was a phenomenal opportunity for a kid. "They really expected a lot out of you, but it paid off big-time," Angell says. "We went to Los Angeles, then the next year we went to Canada to play in the Victoria Day parade. If it came down to the choice between suiting up for a football game or for the band, I swear I think I would have chosen the band."
That's still a choice made by more than 10 percent of the student body. Experience is not a prerequisite. "We have kids show up who have never even played the spoons," says Colombo. "We take kids at all levels, and then we go out and compete against schools many times our size. I think that we're a real source of pride in the community."
In fact it's a rare town event that does not include the band. Tree lighting at Christmas will feature the musicians, as do visits to the senior center, the opening of a store, and welcoming home champions from the road. "It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself," Colombo says. "That's why kids do things together. Maybe we as a society have gotten away from that too much. That's why the kids walk in here and say, I want to be in the band."
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