Principal strives to build a community
There’s a comfortable, pleasant waiting area at Wilton High School, near the principal’s office. It has rugs, magazines, and seating that looks too nice for a school. It’s there that visitors wait for their chance to visit with Principal Robert (Bob) O’Donnell.
Formerly the associate principal, Mr. O’Donnell replaced Tim Canty in 2011, and became acting principal at that time. Now beginning his third school year at the helm, he seems comfortable in his office with a view of the stairs that lead from the lobby.
“The main thing that’s new is 347 freshmen and we’re excited about the class of 2017,” he said. “Our goal is to support a smooth transition to the high school for them. We met with them in advisory twice on day one just to help them get used to the schedule, get around to their classes, and get used to the building.”
While he said there wasn’t much turnover, the school has a new athletics director, Chris McDougal.
“That’s a big step for us,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “We’re looking forward to his great work.”
The two had to address the issue of the system known as pay-to-participate, which began with this school year.
“I was involved in most of the planning in terms of rolling it out,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “We were trying to have a smooth roll-out for student athletes and the parents. I was in contact with the booster presidents right away just to let them know that this was indeed impending.
“Putting the PayPal system into place has been a good collaborative effort. My responsibility ultimately is to try to make sure that this is all able to happen smoothly. We want the student athletes to be comfortable on the field.”
With the first week of school out of the way, it’s now time to get down to business as usual at Wilton High School.
“There was a little bit of shifting in the administrative ranks here but we’ve coalesced and we’re ready to support the kids and teachers,” he said. “We’re off to a good start. The first week is a bit tumultuous because you have the first day with two different rotations and the second day you’re required to have a fire drill. Health and safety are paramount.”
In addition, Mr. O’Donnell said school administrators made sure to individually speak with students.
“We had grade-level meetings with all of the classes,” he said. “The administrators meet with the students just to share honest, accurate and consistent information with all students, nine through 12. We also have an opportunity during those meetings to have the class officers speak a little bit, to gain their rightful recognition.”
The first week of school in Fairfield County wasn’t free of tragedy, as a Greenwich High School student, 15-year-old Bart Palosz, committed suicide after the first day of classes. Bullying appears to have been a reason for Bart to take his own life, based on discussions with fellow classmates and a view of his personal page on the social media site Google +. Asked to discuss the topic, Mr. O’Donnell chose to defer.
“Out of respect for that family, I won’t weigh in on that,” he said. “They will have to conduct their investigation and I think in times like this, it’s important to support the family and certainly the other students and teachers and get the facts. I can tell you that our philosophy around here is that if you really make a concerted effort to focus on a positive school climate, you hopefully are able to pre-empt some of the issues that may arise.”
“One of the things we talked about with all of the classes was school climate, and health and safety and security in the building. That there are trusted adults to whom students can go. We’re all in it together.
“If you see a classmate who may be challenged or in need, it’s incumbent on all of us to help and support that person.”
Mr. O’Donnell said he believes in the concept of everyone feeling accepted and welcome. In short, he believes in a community.
“One of the comments I made talking to the freshmen was that it’s unacceptable if we have a student here eating lunch alone. That’s not what we’re about.
“An observation made earlier in the week was when a couple of seniors reached out to a student who, while not alone, but looked like they needed a little communication and support.”
Regarding bullying, he said the building has a safe school climate committee as well as a safe school specialist. Staff have been trained to recognize, prevent, address, and report bullying, along with being knowledgeable of bullying legislation.
“I circle back to it’s about the climate in the building and helping each other,” he said. “If a student were concerned about another student — if there were signs — you just hope somebody reaches out or somebody reports it so that students and adults can help.”
Among programs in the school that support students, Mr. O’Donnell highlighted LETS (Let’s End the Stigma) and the Best Buddies, supporting students with special needs.
“These programs help,” he said. “They’re run by very caring adults and students with initiative.
“Altogether, in my view incrementally, they work together to help students to be involved and engaged.”
He added that he tries to set the tone for the school as the principal, to keep the school positive, along with the administrative team and staff members.
“We try to hire the very best teachers,” he said. “Teachers who are good content-area specialists, but also first and foremost care about students. We focus on quality and doing things right. I think that our staff sets that tone.”
He pointed to students being from positively oriented homes, and said the school works in concert with parents and families. Yet the school is never happy to rest. He feels it is important to keep striving for further improvement.
“That’s a real team effort,” he said, referring to everyone, from students to staff to families, along with social workers, school psychologist, and counselors.
“I think there’s a very positive school climate here,” he added. “But it can always get better.”
Returning to the topic of school, he addressed similar challenges other Wilton administrators have mentioned.
“We have a new teacher evaluation and support program beginning,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, districtwide, just to make sure we can implement that effectively, with and for the teachers.