Reagan High students take proactive approach to principal search

If you’re part of a public school community in Milwaukee then you know that lately folks have been more on edge than ever. But you also know that many have mobilized to defend their schools and their children’s education.

When the school’s long-time principal Julia D’Amato announced her retirement in February — it emerged a week later that she took another job as principal of a Wauwatosa Catholic school merger — the folks at Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory High School on Milwaukee’s South Side, became concerned about her replacement.

That has led not only to the expected parental involvement, but also to the students at the International Baccalaureate school taking a proactive approach to the situation.

Recently, I heard from parent Christina Ward.

“(On Tuesday), my daughter — she’s an ascending senior at Reagan — attended a (parent governance council) meeting to ‘help determine the needed criteria for the next principal’,” says Ward, who said that a representative from MPS’ central office was on hand, too. “Ruadhan asked that I stay home; she wanted her voice to be heard clearly without parental input, so I stayed home to respect her autonomy.

“The report I got was that a few hundred students and parents showed up to loudly proclaim that they wanted Mike Roemer, the current acting principal, to be assigned permanently.”

They were told that the position would be filled as all principalships in the district are — via a five-step process that includes three interviews.

The process begins with a job posting. Roemer told me Friday that he plans to apply for the position once it is posted.

I heard from some of the students who attended the meeting, too.

“A lot of alumni came to show their support for Roemer,” said 17-year-old Hannah (I’m withholding the last names of the students under 18). “They, along with a bunch of current students, gave loving accounts of how Roemer has been a supportive person throughout their high school careers, and some even said he was a father figure to them. … The staff and students at Reagan are a family, and we will fight to keep our family together.”

Hannah also expressed concern that MPS would appoint a non-IB principal at the school.

Ward’s daughter Ruadhan, also 17, appreciates Roemer’s support of the school’s arts program. Ruadhan is a musician, who has performed publicly in Milwaukee and Chicago.

“Mr. Roemer is also a fierce defender of the arts,” she said in an e-mail. “I am a music department student in choir, as well as participating in our school’s Chamber Choir and the Music Department Student Leadership program. As a growing department, Mr. Roemer supports us in a time where the arts departments are being cut.

“He comes to all of our concerts, musicals and many of our after-school activities. Recently, RRHS hosted the WSMA music competition, with great results. Mr. Roemer was there to support and cheer on all of the Reagan students competing. With him in charge, I am confident that my music department family will be supported next year and for many years to come.”

Although their children are taking the lead, Reagan parents are, of course, also concerned.

“Why would central office mess with the culture, process and administration now?” asked Christina Ward. “It’s one of the best high school options in MPS.”

Others expressed concern over the removal of a veteran and the arrival of an IB novice.

“The IB program is not a quick idea to learn and implement. In fact, IB takes years for an educator to understand and employ,” said parent Traci Morgan-Hoernke.

“The Assistant Principal in Charge (Roemer) has been with Reagan for over four years, has a background in special education, is trained in all aspects of the IB program, including the middle years program … and was hand selected and mentored by the principal that developed the program, culture and learning climate at Reagan. Now if RWR wasn’t a school that has received notoriety for its accomplishments at a local, state, and national level, I would say put someone in the building that can improve the school. However, that is not the case.”

For 18-year-old senior Victoria Ortiz, Roemer’s contribution and importance goes much deeper than a knowledge of IB.

“The students at Reagan High School have a certain culture,” she said in a message, “and Mr. Roemer knows how we all interact with one another and how we all work together, and he knows ways in which to make us all more productive. My fear here is that if Mr. Roemer would not be chosen as our principal, we would get a principal who does not know how to work with the students, and then that positive interaction that the student body has will get lost.”

MPS spokesperson Roseann St. Aubin acknowledged the concerns of the Reagan community and said that the district shares them.

“We will post the position because we want to make sure we find the best person,” she told me. “We also embrace the IB mission at Reagan and wouldn’t do anything to upset that. The superintendent is very committed to that.

“They’ve had the same leader — Julia D’Amato — since the very beginning there and we do understand that students and staff want to keep the focus and the mission alive and so do we, of course. Frankly, we need more of that (student and parental involvement).”

St. Aubin detailed the process:

“It’s a very fast track. There is a 10-day posting period. The first interview takes place at the school with an eight-person committee including seven from the school — parents, staff — and the eighth is an administrator from central office. It is an administrator you are very familiar with, (regional executive specialist) Reggie Lawrence.”

St. Aubin noted that a number of people from the Reagan school community have already expressed interest in the committee, which is in the process of being assembled.

“The second level (interview) is at central office and the third level is with the superintendent,” said St. Aubin, “and we hope to be bringing a name to the board in late May.”

Hannah, however, said she’d like an even faster-track process.

“Dr. Thornton, the MPS superintendent, has the power to appoint the principal of a school in order to skip the interview process,” she said. “We at Reagan need Dr. Thornton to appoint Mr. Roemer as Reagan’s official new principal.”

Although this process is proving a stressful one for some at Reagan, there is an upside and that is that students are making their voices heard and being proactive in the administration of their school and their education.

That’s not going unnoticed.

For his part, Roemer, who declined to comment on the job application and selection process, expressed gratitude for all the support he’s receiving from the Reagan students and parents.

And Ward is excited to see the students taking part in the process, too.

“This is a wonderfully smart and active group of kids,” she said. “They’ve really taken all this stuff with the turmoil at their school and the larger funding issues to heart. We’re so proud of her. And in this age of apathy, we really encourage her to speak her mind without fear.”

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