Taking over the reins at a high school that has been mired in an academic slump is not a task for the faint-hearted.

So when hiring committee members at Westchester High School began looking for someone to replace former Principal Anita Barner, they had specific criteria in mind for the next principal.

In Dr. Bruce Mims, they believe that they have found that and much, much more.

“I think that Dr. Mims is the most Obama-like man that we could have hired,” said Kelly Kane, a Westchester parent who met Mims during the interviewing process. “Since he has been here, he’s been 100 percent behind making the school a better place for students.”

Although he has been at the helm of Westchester High for less than a year, Mims has made a solid impression on many of the students’parents, including Ann Wexler, whose daughter attends the high school.

“Dr. Mims is a dream come true. I pinch myself sometimes, wondering how we were able to get him,” said Wexler, who was a member of the hiring committee at the high school. “He is smart, accomplished, energetic, knowledgeable, and he cares.”

The feeling seems to be mutual. The new principal has good things to say about many of the parents who regularly volunteer at the high school.

“So many of the parents have really been very, very helpful to me during this time of transition,” Mims said. “Ann Wexler, Kelly Kane, Florence Bracy, Ingrid Lamoreaux, Robin AdamsÖ they have all been really great, and very supportive in different ways.”

After spending several years in the Long Beach Unified and Hacienda-La Puente school districts, Mims, a graduate of the University of California-Berkeley, was selected by Westchester High’s hiring committee. He is the second principal to be hired in Westchester through a committee comprised of parents and teachers, which is an important component in the autonomy movement that is alive in Westchester.

Mims says that is something that he does not take for granted.

“One reason that I take my responsibility here so seriously is because the community hired me,” he said. “It makes me feel very validated.

“As a professional, that was probably the greatest single moment of my educational career.”

Mims realizes that he has inherited a school that still lags behind all other Westchester schools and many high schools throughout the state in scholastic performance, although it has shown signs in recent months of awakening from the academic doldrums. Westchester High’s 603 API (Academic Performance Index) score last year was slightly better than the 589 number that it posted in 2007.

The statewide API standard is 800.

“I did a lot of research on Westchester High School before I came here,” Mims said in an interview earlier this spring in his office at the high school. “I have endeavored to get into as many classrooms as I could when I arrived on campus, and now I think that I have a broader understanding of some of the challenges that the teachers and the students are facing.”

Mims says that his goal is to have the school’s API scores reach the 700 benchmark by next year, “and by 2010, my hope is that we reach 800.”

Fred Page, a mathematics teacher at Westchester, shares the principal’s desire of surpassing the school’s previous statewide test results.

“I like him, but he’s got a lot to learn about the school,” said Page. “If people give him time, I think that he can become a good leader.”

Mims, who also holds a master’s degree from the University of San Diego and a doctoral degree from the University of Southern California, says that he has a plan to rebuild Westchester High School’s academic performance as well as sow the seeds of cohesiveness among parent groups and teachers, which has at times been strained.

“We have a plan that we’re working on that is based on very sound research and I hope that as we work together and dialogue with each other, it will be a high school of envy,” he said.

Mims is aware of the history that led to the autonomy movement that began before he was hired at the high school, and while he says he respects the ongoing educational evolution, he does not plan to take a firm stand for or against it.

“It was not my decision, but I will respect what the community does,” the principal stated. “I don’t think that is the area where I can do the most good.”

Mims feels that his role as the school’s educational leader should be to advance and improve upon Westchester High’s academic success regardless of the existing or future governance structure.

“It’s incumbent upon me not to divorce myself from it, but as much as I respect the autonomy process, I owe it to everyone involved to facilitate the process of delivering improvement,” Mims reiterated.

The principal has even made his presence known in the athletic department. In February, he fired Athletic Director Brian Henderson.

“I felt that it was in the best interests of the entire athletic department to make a change at this time,” Mims told The Argonaut the day of Henderson’s firing. “I think that the entire athletic department could be a lot farther along than it is right now.”

Wexler hopes that Mims can remain with the school long enough to lead the academic turnaround that parents, students and the administration desperately want.

“I hope we’re worthy enough to keep him around a long time, because I have a feeling he’s going to have many options,” she said.

Mims believes that he will soon be able to see some initial fruits of the hard work that he and his team have strived for since his arrival.

“By the end of the school year, I hope that we will have a school that is marketable,” he said. “I would also like to see some proof that what we are doing has actually worked and is well on its way with its new design to having more members of the community say, ‘This is where I want to send my child.’”

Mims said that rebuilding academic excellence at Westchester High is going to be a collective effort, and that it is important to set high standards in order to achieve that elusive goal.

“If you don’t set the bar high, you’ll never get there,” he concluded. “I’ve got a great staff to work with, and we’re going to get there together.”