MINOCQUA – Lakeland Union High School’s Justin Szews has been named the 2017 Assistant Principal of the Year by the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA).
The award “recognizes associate principals whose leadership has resulted in improved student learning, instructional collaboration, and a safe and positive school environment.” Szews said he was both “surprised and humbled” by the award. And it wasn’t his alone, he said to the students and staff at a surprise assembly for him Thursday morning. “This is definitely yours, as much as it is me,” Szews said. “I come here and do my job and I love it. We have accomplished some great things. I say ‘we’ because ultimately it’s the students that are getting it done, because teachers are getting it done, support staff is getting it done, maintenance staff is getting it done, the kitchen staff is getting it done. “The school board and community are providing all the resources to make it happen it here,” he said, concluding: “We got things going in the right direction here. Let’s keep it going in the right direction.” Szews came to LUHS in 2008 as its dean of students and activities director, in the latter role to replace retiring Al Wooldridge. He acquired the assistant principal role the second year, with the past four years strictly as assistant principal.
Administrator/Principal Jim Bouché and a few staff were informed of the selection by AWSA on Nov. 1, and worked hard to keep it a surprise until they brought Szews into the high school theater on Thursday. Bouché said Szews had an appointment that morning, but was told to cancel because they needed to meet with state Department of Instruction representatives. The ruse worked. While Szews knew he had been nominated (he and other nominees had to fill out additional paperwork for AWSA), he was totally unaware of his selection until he saw the band and choir, the AWSA official and his family. His wife, Tara, said she let their four children know Monday about the upcoming ceremony and asked them not to spill the beans. “It was top secret,” she said.
An outstanding school AWSA’s Associate Executive Director Joe Schroeder, of Wausau, congratulated Szews on his award, and also complimented the administrative team, staff, students, school board and community for having an outstanding school. He ticked off the reasons for that: “You have a wonderful, sustained leadership group here,” he said. “Massive improvements in attendance for all student groups. Graduation rates here have been dramatically improved over recent years. Of course, discipline referrals go down when things are going well. Course failures are down. Achievement is up. There’s a general improving trend, a climate that is really cooperative, and a wonderful place. “No place is perfect, but there are all sorts of signs that this place is a better place than what it was. It starts with leadership. And it’s about leadership working in partnership with others, and that includes the students, the board, staff, and what have you.”
He noted the school was awarded the DPI’s Spirit of Excellence Award this past year, as well as receiving an “Eagle Staff” from the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, and a significant boost in standings by U.S. News & World Report, which placed LUHS in 63rd place of all high schools in Wisconsin. Schroeder said nominees for the award came from the 2,000 elementary, middle and high schools in the state. The selection committee includes parents, representatives from the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. The official said letters of recommendation for Szews carried themes of “a collaborative and servant leader,” “a leader of incredible integrity” and “a man of wisdom beyond his years.”
Szews had some advice for educators eyeing leadership roles such as his: “You can get yourself very bogged down if you don’t focus on what’s best for kids, because there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made that are going to make people unhappy. And some that make people very happy. But as long as you base your decisions on what’s best for kids, it comes out in the long run on the positive side.” And for students who may be struggling in school, he said: “My advice for students, and it’s advice I share quite often with kids in my office, is to keep focused. It’s hard for kids because they don’t see into the future like us adults sometimes can. You have to focus on something you like to do.” Teachers and administrators play a vital role in getting students on that path to success, he added. “Find out what it is that a student likes to do and really get them to focus on that. If they have a goal or something they aspire to do or something that they enjoy doing, you can build from that and keep them coming to school. A student that comes here because they really love auto shop, sooner or later they might actually get something in math class or English class. “But keep on reinforcing for them the next step; the next step; building for the next step. And that’s usually centered around on something they love to do or something they want to do when they are done with high school.”
Szews will formally accept a plaque at the State Assistant Principals’ Conference on Jan. 25 in Madison. He will also receive a check for $1,000 to use on a project at his school. Szews will also represent Wisconsin at the National Principals’ Convention in Chicago, where the 50 national Assistant Principals of the Year will be honored in July.