Senior Day, the traditional day-before-graduation mingle at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, took place in the school’s quad after the last final exams were turned in May 30. This year’s edition was particularly bittersweet when Principal Steve Wehr and Assistant Principal Pam Bartlett showed up.
Band Leader Paul Varnoff and Choir Director Natalie Miller led a special farewell tribute from the band and choir, an uptempo fight song and the Oak Ridge alma mater.
Wehr will take over as El Dorado Union High School District’s assistant superintendent of Human Resources, replacing Stevie Clark, who retired this year. He’ll oversee hiring, evaluations and labor negotiations.
Bartlett will become the district’s director of Special Education.
Senior Michelle Mansour had fond words for her principal. She recalled her first impression: “Here’s this guy … he looks like a principal, except for the Crocs. I remember thinking ‘This should be interesting.’”
To say the least. Wehr has overseen a nine-year string of academic gains, expanded curriculum and programs, facility upgrades and he helped instill a new approach to teaching and student empowerment, architecting an attitude of collaboration that’s extended beyond academics.
“Staff morale has soared under his leadership,” said Counselor Glen Swedelson, who has known every Oak Ridge principal to date and credits Wehr with “transforming this into a place of teaching and learning.”
Senior Faith Allen recalled the first time Wehr walked into one of her classes. “We all sat up and took notice, but the teacher was very comfortable. He just kept teaching.”
It wasn’t always that way. When Wehr arrived in 2004, teachers would stop and ask him what he wanted when he walked into their class; they eventually got used to sharing the classroom with their principal.
“You have to hear the voices from inside the class to know what’s working and what’s not,” Wehr said.
Wehr calls his drop-ins “MBWA,” an acronym coined in the 1970s at Hewlett-Packard, which encouraged its executives to practice “Management by walking around” to better experience their organization firsthand.
The touchy feelyness of it all might seem lost on a generation that equates social life with social media, especially coming from a man Swedelson described as “steady and thoughtful, calm and positive” — the strong, silent type, more Gary Cooper than Robin Williams.
The class visitations are an important clue to understanding how a fifty-something guy with thinning hair, a white shirt, tie and odd footwear can connect to students more comfortable texting than talking.
Wehr’s looking for a connection, an entrée into “the quality world of kids,” he said.
This is a man who studies middle school yearbooks, memorizing the names and faces of his incoming freshmen and hoping to recognize them by name when he encounters them in his campus wanderings.
More importantly, he listens to them. Really listens. The implied message is clear. This isn’t just a job for him and they’re not just another student. He’s interested in them. He cares.
“When kids know you care it changes the whole dynamic,” Wehr said.
He crawls into their world and tells students that they are unique and powerful individuals that have more control of situations than they know.
Wehr is a student of psychologist and counselor William Glassner’s Choice Theory, which holds that outcomes, academic and other, are driven by personal choices. Our choices reflect the relationships we hold most dear and create a “quality world” that might include a select few good teachers and maybe, just maybe, a principal.
Many of life’s struggles are the result of poor choices, said Wehr.
Wehr hears struggling students that say everything in school “happens to them,” he said. “They come to believe that their entire experience here is outside their control.”
He disagrees, and tells those students they have the power to shape their high school experience. “We work for you, and you can make this what you want it to be.”
He hears kids out whenever possible, explaining, “If I can get them to be present in their situation, then anything’s possible.”
It starts with good choices. Good outcomes and quality relationships follow, he added.
Wehr developed his leadership philosophy over a 30-year career in education that began as a social studies teacher at Center High School in Antelope. He helped open the school in 1984 and spent the next 20 years there, the last 10 as principal, before coming to Oak Ridge in 2004.
The ensuing academic escalation is a tangible result of Wehr’s leadership, according to District Superintendent Chris Hoffman.
Incoming Principal Paul Burke has some large Crocs to fill. Both men have succeeded by turning their academic departments into Professional Learning Communities, where teachers of similar subjects measure and share teaching strategies to find what works best.
It’s all part of the principal’s mission, said Wehr, to “expand teacher capability and provide them what they need to excel.”
As a result, “We’re doing more project-based learning now. These kids are engaged.”
But that’s not enough. Wehr also wants his students to possess life skills, “to know how to collaborate, to have passion and stand up for what they believe in, to advocate for themselves and to present well so they have choices when they leave here.”
Most Oak Ridge students go on to college, which makes academics first and foremost.
Oak Ridge’s overall Academic Performance Index score for 2012-13 was 886, up from 879 last year, again ranking in the top bracket state-wide.
Assistant Superintendent Chris Moore is the district statistician. What he said impresses him most about Oak Ridge’s lofty test scores is the consistent improvement over Wehr’s tenure. In an era when many top-ranked schools suffer drops in API scores, Oak Ridge has improved for nine years running, a feat that to Moore’s knowledge is unmatched regionally.
The California State Admissions “A-G” test scores have also consistently risen.
Wehr also oversaw a huge growth in Advanced Placement participation, adding new AP classes and administering a record 1,200 AP tests in May. That number, along with the percent of students who pass the test, “just exploded over the last nine years,” said Moore.
The high-tech manufacturing and engineering lab, which prepares students for technical careers, doesn’t show up in the AP statistics.
The school was recognized as both a California Distinguished School and a Blue Ribbon School on Wehr’s watch.
Wehr sees the test scores as an embarrassment of riches. He credits his teachers and also the middle schools, who “prepare these kids better and better,” he said.
So many freshman were arriving with Algebra 1 under their belt that, “We had kids burning through all the math we had to offer,” said Wehr, who supported the addition of an advanced Calculus class when Folsom Lake College couldn’t help.
Wehr said he’s particularly proud of computer science teacher Stephanie Allen, who set up an AP computer science class. In March her team of student programmers cleaned up at the 2013 CodeWars competition, beating out 30 teams from around the state.
Hoffman had high praise for Wehr’s ability to develop teachers. “He’s taken that charge as well as anyone in the district,” he said.
“He’s got a quiet strength about him and a strong moral compass,” the superintendent continued. “His job is full of distractions, but he never loses focus.”
Choir Director Miller looks young enough to be one of the seniors mingling on Thursday. She came to the school in 2004, the same year as Wehr, and looked even younger then.
Early on, parents complained to Wehr about her choice of soloists. The principal had her back. “He told them he wouldn’t tell the football coach who to start at quarterback and he wasn’t going to tell me who should get the solos,” she said. “That support meant a lot.”
Asked to reflect on his time at Oak Ridge, Wehr talked about the power of witnessing the metamorphosis of children into young adults, armed with a good education and able to advocate for themselves.
He’s also incredibly proud of the way the school’s management team came together over the last couple years. “We are absolutely in sync,” he said. “It’s a once in a lifetime thing.”
Standing in the quad on Thursday as the seniors hugged and promised to stay in touch, he took it all in and nodded, “Yeah, I’ll miss this.”