Diana Lesneski recalls her first year as a principal in the Tomah School Area District.
She was hired at the start of the 2016-17 school year and asked to juggle three elementary schools. The biggest was Miller Elementary School with roughly 250 students, but she was also responsible for Oakdale and Camp Douglas elementary schools with roughly 50 students each.
“It seemed like whenever I was out at Camp Douglas or Oakdale, Miller would need me, and if I were at Miller, one of the other schools would have something come up,” Lesneski said.
When something did come up, response time was an issue. Oakdale is seven miles from Miller, and Camp Douglas is nearly 14 miles away.
This year, principals in the school district’s three largest elementary schools won’t bounce from building to building. The district completed the process of one school/one principal for Miller, LaGrange and Lemonweir by hiring an additional elementary principal, leaving a shared principal for Camp Douglas, Oakdale and Tomah Montessori School and for another Wyeville and Warrens elementary schools. The new alignment of principals begins when most of the district’s students return for the start of the 2019-20 school year Tuesday, Sept. 3.
Lemonweir principal Nicki Pope picked up the Oakdale and Camp Douglas duties in 2017-18 after Lemonweir adopted a year-round calendar. She looks forward to devoting her attention to just one building. She described managing multiple schools as “challenging.”
“Every day is different,” Pope said. “It could be a custodial issue. It could be a student behavior issue. It could be a gas leak.”
School district superintendent Cindy Zahrte said parents in the district expressed concern that “principals were spread too thin and not able to adequately address the needs of students in a timely manner or to communicate with parents.”
“Having a full time principal at our largest elementary schools is critical,” Zahrte said. “When I have been at Camp and Oakdale, both parents and teachers have also commented that they would like a principal to be present more often in their buildings.”
Pope said parents expect the principal to show up for special events, such as reading fairs or grandparents day.
“You’d like to be at every place for every event,” Pope said. “It’s difficult to be at all those activities when you have multiple schools ... you definitely get pulled into multiple directions.”
LaGrange principal Michelle Clark hasn’t experienced the push and pull of multiple buildings since hers is the largest elementary school in the district with nearly 450 students. She still welcomes the change and said it will allow principals to focus more on curriculum development.
“Our main focus is instructional leadership,” Clark said. “The educational setting has changed since we’ve been in school. Our principals were building managers and disciplinarians ... principals now are expected to be the instructional leaders in the building.”
Lesneski said an important part of that role is spending more time with students and staff.
“I’m able to be there to help problem solve and support the kids and the teachers,” Lesneski said.
Zahrte said the situation will also improve at the outlying schools. Even though schools will still be sharing principals − Tim Gnewikow at Wyeville and Warrens and newly hired JoLynn Schmidt at Oakdale, Camp Douglas and TAMS − Zahrte said the addition of guidance counselors that cover the five schools will provide additional support.
“Our situation this year with having two principals and two counselors assigned to these schools is much improved,” Zahrte said.
Pope said she looks to her “availability to just be visible in the hallways and stop into class rooms or just say, ‘good morning.’”
“I can be more responsive in a timely manner,” she said.