By Kim Howard
Stephen Perkins could have become a school administrator nearly 15 years ago, after he finished his master’s degree in education.
“After I finished that degree, I said ‘who really needs that kind of aggravation?’” Perkins, 56, said this week. “Life was good, the ( Winooski School District) music program was going well. I had no great desire.”
And yet this year Perkins was named the 2007 Robert F. Pierce Vermont Secondary School Principal of the Year. The Vermont Principals’ Association administers the award.
Perkins, who has lived in Williston since 1977, was approached in 2003 to consider filling the principal’s vacancy at Winooski High School after successive turnover in the position led to mounting instability.
“The average life expectancy (of a Winooski High School principal) was 18 months,” Perkins said. “All of the research out says (that) to have any kind of effective change, you need to be in a place for four years.”
For 19 years, Perkins had taught instrumental music in Winooski, beginning a string program, piano lab and guitar class with grant funding. He’d been president of the teachers’ association. He had strong relationships both with staff and the community, he said; when he asked teachers to vote on whether he should become principal, the vote was a unanimous “yes.”
He told the School Board he’d try the position for two years, provided he could return to his teaching position if either he or the board were dissatisfied. Neither party was.
“Rumor has it I lived here the first year,” Perkins said. He organized staff potluck dinners and attended all student concerts, athletic games and other events. He made sure parents knew his door was open. He promised teachers they would set a small number of achievable goals, and would not move on to new ones until those goals were met.
Entering his fifth year as principal, the Winooski High School team has made notable progress. Disciplinary referrals decreased 60 percent his first year as principal, something Perkins attributes largely to his consistent responses to students with similar behavioral issues. The teaching staff re-wrote and made uniform the high school curriculum.
The school also needed to do a lot of work on issues of diversity and acceptance, Perkins said. About 18 percent of the high school’s students are learning English as a second language; 22 languages are spoken among the school’s 240 students. As a refugee resettlement area, Winooski schools have a significant influx of newcomers each year.
Perkins’ colleagues express a high regard for their leader.
“The staff as a whole was just thrilled to death for Steve when we heard he’d been given this award,” said Maida Townsend, who’s taught French at the school since 1989. “We really believe in him and were tickled to death that others recognized, him.”
Three teachers interviews used words like “respect,” “listens,” “collaborative,” “open door,” and “innovative” to describe Perkins’ approach to leadership.
“He’s been really good about classroom observations,” Townsend said, noting many principals don’t visit classrooms as often as they should. “He gives feedback to us and that’s really important to us.”
Business teacher Courtney Poquette, who just finished her first year as a teacher, not only cites Perkins “welcoming and warm” attitude, but his innovative approach for giving students more opportunities. Students this coming year are being offered dual enrollment in information processing, allowing them to get college credit while they earn high school credit. Perkins also initiated summer school on-line classes, partnering with a college, Poquette said, so that more subjects could be offered with fewer human resources.
Winooski had a bad rap for a long time, math teacher Sharon James said, but that is starting to change.
“It was his coinage of ‘best small school in the state,’” said James, who retired this year after 23 years at the school. “He’s really worked to put that (message) out.”