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Departing Principal Reflects On Six Years At NHS

When Charles Dumais first arrived in the Newtown school district in January 2008, he was the fifth principal to take the helm at Newtown High School in four years.

“There were kids that were graduating that year for whom I was the fifth principal,” said Mr Dumais, while reflecting on his last six years spent at NHS.

Mr Dumais was chosen to be the new superintendent in Amity Regional School District #5 and is set to assume his new responsibilities on March 1.

On February 11, the Newtown Board of Education unanimously selected former Ridgefield High School principal Jeffrey Jaslow to be interim principal at NHS, effective February 19. As Interim Superintendent of Schools John Reed announced after Mr Dumais accepted his new position for the Amity Regional School District #5, it is anticipated that that a permanent high school principal will be selected prior to July 1.

After announcing his new position, Mr Dumais told The Bee in January he was leaving a great school and situation for another great school system and situation.

Newtown, he said recently, has great staff, students, and families. When he first arrived, Mr Dumais said the high school had all the starting blocks and needed only someone to say, “Let’s go.”

The biggest change he thinks he made was trying to stay ahead of the teacher evaluation process. Many of the things — like unannounced observations and observations for every teacher — happening with the state teacher evaluation process now, Mr Dumais said, are things that NHS instituted before they were part of that plan.

“So I think that we did a good job of supporting the good work of teachers and creating an organization that was committed to learning, and not just to students but for students, teachers, administrators, everybody,” said Mr Dumais.

Mr Dumais said his goal has always been to “say yes” when students and teachers present “amazing” ideas and concepts. The student-run Community Conversation, underwritten by the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, in March 2012 was the first Community Conversation to be run by students, and an example Mr Dumais used to explain how he encourages endeavors.

Another effort in the last six years Mr Dumais said “has really taken off” was a focus on instruction, which he credited to former superintendent Janet Robinson, who also began her time in Newtown in January 2008.

Other changes during the last six years included the NHS expansion project, the growth of the Newtown International Center for Education, and what Mr Dumais explained as a focus on communication.

When the NHS expansion project broke ground on May 28, 2009, Mr Dumais was one in a line of people who shoveled the first scoops of dirt to the mark the start of the project. At the time he said, “All the different people at all the different stages have come together to put one huge project together.”

Once the work began, Mr Dumais said he took responsibility for the building project. He had formerly taken responsibility for a building project in Westport when he was an assistant principal there. A table was set up in his office while the NHS expansion project was under way with maps, figures, and timelines detailing all aspects of the project.

Mr Dumais estimated there have been roughly 5,500 posts to the high school blog since it was started during the 2008-09 school year. While Mr Dumais said he has not written each post to the blog since then, he has been the one to post each announcement. The blog was part of a focus on communication, Mr Dumais explained, and was meant to “share the successes of kids here at school.”

Since the blog was formed with Mr Dumais’s name and account, the blog will not be continuing when Mr Dumais leaves the school district. Instead he said assistant to the principal Nathalie de Brantes and teacher Eugene Hall will be overseeing a transition and running a Facebook and Twitter account for the high school.

Mr Dumais said that transition is expected to be complete in the coming weeks.

By 2009 a sister-school relationship was forming with a school in Liaocheng, China, thanks to efforts made by NHS teacher Martha Parvis and then assistant principal Jason Hiruo. Since then the program has expanded into the Newtown International Center for Education (NICE).

Mr Dumais said he is proud the high school has developed an environment where administrators can hone their skills, noting both Mr Hiruo and former assistant principal Scott Clayton have become principals in the last couple years.

His role at NHS has been to apply consistent and persistent pressure in the right areas, Mr Dumais said, to bring about the changes that have happened at the school.

Little things, he said, like standing out front to greet people to the school in the morning, make a difference. It demonstrates for students that somebody at the school cares about them, said Mr Dumais, adding that practice is one aspect of the school safety solution.

One thing outside of the school district that he has been proud of is his contributions to his profession, he said. His work with the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS) helped develop an emergency response team for administrators following the events of 12/14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“All these organizations have an emergency response team,” he said. “We were able, through CAS, to develop one for administrators. So if a tragedy were to happen a team of experienced principals would show up at your door.”

The past year at NHS, Mr Dumais said, has shown evidence of the momentum that the high school has developed. Mr Dumais said the school earned two significant recognitions, placement on the AP District Honor Roll released by the College Board for Advanced Placement testing scores and recognition from the Connecticut Department of Education as an excelling school, in the last year.

“Those two things in a very complicated year for Newtown, at a time when we actually chose to take the [Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT)], kids just excelled,” Mr Dumais said. “It speaks a lot to the commitment of the staff and the motivation and drive of the students.”

Looking back, Mr Dumais said his job would have been hard without his assistant, Ms de Brantes.

“Without a great assistant it would be really hard to do a good job,” said Mr Dumais.

In turn, Ms de Brantes said, “One amazing thing [Mr Dumais] did was creating relationships.”

She said students feel comfortable with Mr Dumais, share ideas with him, “And look for him, meet with him, and truly respect him.”

Mr Dumais used the word “amazing” to describe the students at NHS.

“When I use the word ‘amazing’ when talking about the kids here, I mean truly amazing,” he said. “The things that they do, they continue to surprise me with their achievements, their efforts, their motivation, just how much, honestly, that they care about each other.”

The last year, Mr Dumais continued, “Would have been a far more difficult year if we didn’t have the best kids ever.”

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