Principally Speaking

John Dodig has many qualities essential in a high school principal.

He loves Staples:  the staff, the students, the community, even the building.

John Dodig traveled to Ridgefield for the state championship match. (Photo by Susan Woog Wagner)

He is visible:  greeting students before school, walking the halls, popping into classrooms, attending games, plays and concerts.

And he communicates excellently.  How many principals do you know with that skill?

Each month, his “From the Desk of John Dodig” column leads off “For the Wreckord” — the cringe-worthily named PTA newsletter.  Each month a crisp, cogent story shows his pride in his school, warns of a looming educational challenge, or appeals for reason around a troublesome issue like drinking, drugs or dishonesty.

His column this month is particularly intriguing.  It captures in just a few paragraphs this town’s commitment to educational excellence — and our ambivalence about the price we pay for it.

Mr. Dodig wrote:

Not long ago, I was interviewed by a woman who intends to move from the West Coast to somewhere in this area.  She had already researched communities like New Canaan, Darien, Wilton, Weston, Greenwich, and a few communities in Westchester County.

She told me that she and her family can choose to move anywhere in this area.  The decision will be made based upon the quality of a community’s schools.  One child will attend middle school next year; 1 will be a freshman in high school.

We talked for more than an hour.  She left with a course catalog, a student handbook, and a list of the schools which last year’s graduates chose to attend.  Half an hour later she called from her car, with 2 more questions she forgot to ask. People call several times a year asking for this kind of interview.  The quality of the schools is always the determining factor.

What I find enjoyable and fascinating about this process is that I get to talk about my favorite subject with someone who is really interested, and who has done his or her homework.  The fascinating part is that they are seeking information that they can’t find on the internet, or from State of Connecticut published data.  They are looking for the intangible qualities of the school:  Are students happy here?  Are teachers happy here?  What are our most difficult or annoying problems?  Is the school community tolerant of those who are different?  “My son is a quiet, shy boy who really enjoys theater and music.  Will he be accepted here?”

Fast forward to the end of this fall sports season.  Just imagine what I could have added to my conversation with my interviewer. Watching our students perform at such a high level and make it to FCIAC and state championship competitions is another example of what goes on in this building daily.

When some in town decided they would like to honor our soccer and football teams, we quickly expanded that recognition ceremony to include our Westport Teacher of the Year, the robotics team, Players, students in our radio program who won Drury Awards, Inklings’ national recognition, etc.  I wish that West Coast parent were back on the East Coast, and could have attended this ceremony in our gym.  It would have added to the list of reasons why Westport is the place to buy a house.

Early in December, I met with a group of students chosen to be “Students of the Month.”  Before handing them their certificates, I explained to them that I ask teachers to close their eyes and think of  1 student among all they teach who really makes them happy and  thankful that they chose to teach at Staples.

I ask them to send me the name of the 1 girl or boy who makes each day a joy simply because she or he  is in the teacher’s class.  It has nothing to do with grades, or whether the student is an athlete, in Players or in a club.  It is based strictly upon the student adding to the quality of life in that teacher’s classroom and, therefore, to the quality of life in the school.  If you add all of this together with the list of who is going to what college, along with athletic, academic and other state and national recognition, you truly get a picture of an exceptional high school.

The new year is just beginning, but we are well into the new budget season. All of what I shared with the potential new Westport resident and with you is part of what it means to run a successful 21st century high school in a town that sends really high quality students to its public schools.  It is an expensive undertaking but, in my opinion, well worth the expense and well worth sustaining.

Last year’s budget crisis cut deeply into the delivery of services to students.  Not long after school began in September, parents began asking why their children were not receiving music lessons any longer.  They could not pay for private lessons, and counted upon this time with our teachers to sharpen their musical skills.  Parents asked me why their children could not take Spanish 1A (designed for students who had never taken Spanish before).  It was closed at 30 students, and students waited to get in.

I was asked why many honors level classes had 29 and 30 students in them.  Parents of students in B level classes who were used to very personal attention in classes of 15 students not many years ago were now sharing the attention of their teachers with 20 or 21 students.  Students asked me many times this year if we will ever bring back computer and/or robotics classes.

The quality of what we provide to students becomes diminished each time we are forced to try to meet the needs of the same number of students with significantly less funding.  Where can we go from here if we are forced to reduce our budget again?  What won’t we be able to provide for students next year?

Please keep up with the budget deliberations, and let those in charge of the final decision know how you feel about this subject one way or another.

Happy New Year!

4 responses to “Principally Speaking

  1. Thanks Dan for sharing John Dodig’s words with a wider audience. For me, John again hits the nail squarely on the head as he encourages us all to consider, in a global way, what value the Westport schools have to us; whether we are parents of students in them or not. Westport is lucky to have such an experienced advocate for education, at all levels, at SHS.

  2. John McCarthy

    Thanks Dan.
    Parents of 8th graders (my wife and I included) just got the Transition-to-Staples process letter yesterday. As we start this big transition for our daughter and her friends we are glad to have this reminder of the strong leadership present at Staples.

    John McCarthy

  3. Staples Student

    Mr. Dodig is the best principal ever! Staples is so lucky to have him because he actually cares about the students and he treats us with respect. The kids at Staples are given a lot of freedom and we are like real adults, but this independence is helping everybody become a better learner. Go Staples!!!

  4. Linda Gramatky Smith

    This reminds my husband, Kendall, and me (as a retired “senior citizens”, gulp) to stay on top of the budget process and speak to the ones making the decisions. Even if OUR kids didn’t go to Staples (I did, but we lived in NJ when our children were going to school), it’s in the interest of all Westport home owners to support the budget. I remember (in NJ) how frustrated I was as a young parent when homeowners whose children had gotten a good education in that town would then vote down a budget.