KENDALLVILLE — Typically, new principals have a few short weeks over the summer to get prepared for the job and acclimated with their new school.
But that’s not the case with two incoming principals for East Noble schools who are getting almost a full year to gear up for their next administrative jobs.
This summer, Avilla Elementary Principal Dave Pine announced he would retire at the end of this school year, bringing the end to a 40-year career with East Noble. The school district wasted little time in looking for the next leader at the district’s southernmost elementary.
But the one vacancy created an opportunity for two new principals, as South Side Elementary Principal Jeff Harper was picked to take over at Avilla, while South Side’s Dean of Students Faith Erexson will rise to become the new principal.
Having a full school year and working together in the same building is giving Harper and Erexson both an unusual opportunity to get ready for their next roles.
The move will be Harper’s fourth administrative stop in his 15-year career. After teaching for eight years at West Noble, he was an assistant principal at Central Noble Jr./Sr. High before serving as principal at Albion Elementary and then coming to South Side.
Erexson has also been in education for 15 years, but will be taking on her first principal role. While Harper has worked in all three Noble County school district, Erexson is pure East Noble, having attending East Noble as a student, then coming back and serving in a role in every elementary school at some point in her career.
Before her first job, she student-taught at North Side and Avilla elementary schools. She was hired as a Skills for Success program teacher at South Side. Then the program went half-and-half between North Side and South Side, then it moved to Wayne Center Elementary for a year before returning to North Side. Then she taught at Rome City Elementary before being named the Dean of Students at South Side.
Although already an East Noble principal, Harper said he got interested in the Avilla job because of the new preschool program that’s being developed.
East Noble is in the process of trying to establish an early learning center with six children’s-museum-like classrooms where interactive learning is at the forefront. Harper said he was really excited about the idea and wanted to explore hosting it at South Side, although the building didn’t have enough space.
When Avilla was picked as the most likely site for the new preschool program, Harper said he wanted to be involved in bringing that to the community.
“I was really excited about it and thought it was a cool opportunity,” Harper said. “I was disappointed we couldn’t have it at South Side, but we just don’t have the space. It was a situation that I felt pretty passionate about bringing a preschool like this … so I think (Superintendent Ann Linson) knowing I had interest with that helped develop the idea of what would it look like if I went to Avilla.”
As for Erexson becoming the new principal, Harper said he had recognized immediately that she was bound to become a leader sooner than later and started to give her some glimpses of what managing the school is like.
“I knew her time as Dean of Students was limited because she really comes with a skill set that prepares her to be a principal,” Harper said. “Knowing that she was going to have a short-lived tenure as dean of students here, I started giving her a look of what the principalship looked like. I didn’t believe that it would be at South Side, though.”
That’s going to continue even more this year, to help her get ready, they said. While neither of their jobs changes and she’s not taking on additional duties, Harper said he’s showing her more things that she’ll need to know as principal that she otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to.
“Taking your first principal job is overwhelming, what makes it less overwhelming is I’ve been in this building for two years and I have the opportunity to work and learn with Jeff and he’s amazing,” Erexon said. “He’s like ‘You’re going to need to know this.’ Even though it’s not my job yet, you get a lot of backside information you couldn’t get otherwise.”
Many principals don’t get hired until late in a school year or over a summer break, where they have little time to familiarize themselves with the building, the staff and students. That won’t be an issue in this case.
Harper, too, will have plenty of time to prepare and said he’ll seek opportunities to work with Pine over the coming months to help transition over to Avilla.
When it comes to learning from someone with experience at East Noble, there’s few better people to turn to than the veteran Pine, although Harper holds no illusions that he’ll match up to legendary educator.
“What I have to remember is I’m not going to Avilla to fill Dave’s shoes — because that can’t be done — but to continue some of the traditions they’ve established,” Harper said. “There is a lot of great stuff going in Avilla.”
As principals, Harper and Erexson said their goals are to help students make goals and reach them and make them feel safe and successful at school.
“What I would like to see is all of our kids, no matter their age, have goals they understand. And we understand we are here to reach those goals,” Harper said.
Erexson said she doesn’t plan to make major changes to the culture of South Side, but build off what’s already in place.
“It’s really important for me that every kid feel safe when they come to school,” she said. “And continue with our goals and continue working on those. We want them to know that we want them to be successful, we want them to want to be successful, whether that’s learning all their letters or understanding what they read. It doesn’t have to look the same as their neighbor.”
Both leaders have the backing of Superintendent Ann Linson, who said she feels confident about both stepping into their new roles in the 2020-21 school year.
In replacing Pine, Linson said she was looking for someone with experience who could carry out the new early learning center plan as well as the traditional K-5.
“Jeff has demonstrated these qualities during his short tenure with East Noble School Corp. and his excitement for the new preschool design makes him an excellent fit,” Linson said.
As for Erexson, as an East Noble “lifer,” she’s built a large tool box of skills from her various roles at multiple buildings, making her an easy fit for leadership.
“As a Dean of Students at South Side Elementary, she has been able to develop her leadership skills, build relationships with students, families, and staff, and be mentored by an exceptional leader. For those reasons, moving Faith into the South Side principalship was an easy decision,” Linson said.