Turnover nothing new at Whittell: High housing costs one reason cited for frequent principal change | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Turnover nothing new at Whittell: High housing costs one reason cited for frequent principal change

William Ferchland

Richard Brownfield is dismayed to see a lack of consistency for Whittell High School’s principal position.

Brownfield – who held the post for a 16-year stretch through 1991 along with a one-year stint in 2000 – and others cited numerous reasons for the instability at the principal’s office.

Last week Janie Gray announced her resignation to spend more time with family. It ensured a different principal would head the school for the sixth time in a decade. Gray will leave at the end of the school year.

“It’s sad to see the revolving door,” Brownfield said from his home in Carson Valley. “I had a good time … and if I hadn’t promised my wife that I’d retire at the end of the year, I’d probably have stayed a couple more years.”

When Brownfield retired in 1991 after 16 years as Whittell’s principal, a trend of instability began, albeit slowly. Dave Sheets took the reigns for five years, followed by Larry Snyder for two and Howard Bennett for one year.

Brownfield then returned in 2000 to give Douglas County School District more time to find an ideal candidate. Mario Gatto was later hired. He pledged three to five years to the school but left for a job in Alaska after two years.

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Then came Gray, a disciplinarian from Texas who focused on the school’s academic achievement and often sat in classes to evaluate lessons. Whittell is one of four Nevada schools given “exemplary” status based on test scores related to No Child Left Behind, a federal act aimed to improve student performance on academics.

Graduations rates are high as well as the percentage of students who attend college.

“Whittell has, in my view, accomplished more than schools twice its size,” Brownfield said.

Jenna Hayes had three principals during her years at Whittell. Hayes is attending University of Nevada, Reno after graduating from Whittell in 2004.

She stated the next principal should bring a “student-centered attitude.”

“The goal of a high school education is not to produce high scores on standardize tests, rather to produce a well-rounded person who is capable of becoming a productive citizen,” Hayes stated via e-mail. “The new principal also needs to be willing to work to improve relationships between students, staff and the community. Since Whittell High School has such a small population, the new principal needs to be dynamic in many areas, unlike at a larger school where the job focus may be more narrow.”

Last school year the district created a vice principal position at Whittell to assist Gray in evaluating teachers. Some parents and students voiced displeasure with Gray’s communication, or lack of, during after-school meetings in the school’s library.

Since 2001, the school received front-page attention from allegations that secretaries altered student grades to seniors committing a hazing act on an underclassman by locking him in a trunk and allegations a track coach improperly placed team contributions into a private account.

Gray’s reign was blemished by an unfounded teacher sick-out, the controversial firing of a counselor, an allegation she tampered with student records and the contentious suspension of two seniors for possessing prescription ibuprofen at last year’s prom.

Brownfield and others said demands increase at a small school where expectations are high.

Kathy Pavich, former president of the school’s booster club, said a principal living within the community and being open to communication should be among a principal’s priorities.

“We need to be able to talk to each other and work things out,” she said.

But the lack of affordable housing on the Nevada side of the lake makes living in the area difficult, if not improbable, said Rich Alexander, assistant superintendent of human services.

Zephyr Cove Elementary Principal Chris Perdomo, Gray and Whittell Vice Principal Ed Perkins all live in Carson Valley. Dan Wold, head of Kingsbury Middle School, lives in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

The pressure of commuting from Carson Valley to the lake is tenuous, especially on a principal, said Cindy Trigg.

Trigg, a trustee on he district’s school board, spoke from the stance of a community member.

“They just need to be here for so many things,” Trigg said. “I think it puts a very hard strain and it is a hardship.”

Brownfield said he was successful as a principal because he attended extracurricular activities, from following the debate team to attending away sporting events.

“I just think students and parents appreciate a principal demonstrating enough interest to follow them to the degree he or she can,” Brownfield said.

Hayes, the former student, said despite its turnover, Whittell prepared her for life after high school.

“My belief is that if a principal is hired with a reasonable amount of experience and personal skills, I am confident that they would have a long running tenure,” Hayes stated. “I cannot directly answer why Whittell has experienced so many leadership changes. That seems to be the magic question. Hopefully the next principal will be the missing piece and remain in the job for many years.”