Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson starts her work from a position of love. After that comes the balance.
“You’ve got to start from a place of love,” she said during a Friday interview in her office. “But love when you think about balance, you can’t be too permissive and you can’t be too punitive. It’s that balance of this warm demand or firm but fair… ‘I’ve got your back, we are doing this, and I’m not going to let this up.’ ”
Over the past eight years at the helm of Schenectady High School, overseeing a sprawling school and thousands of students, Wilkinson has sought to build a school culture that emphasizes care and support of students and empowers student activism and personal expression.
After three years of budget cuts, the school in the past few years has seen an influx of resources to support new programs, expand student offerings and find new ways to provide students the personalized attention many need to succeed. Along the way she has made sure to listen to students and, in many instances, handed them the bullhorn from which to share their truths.
“How do we make Schenectady High School a place students want to come and be and have a voice?” she said. “Student voice is critical to what we do here at the high school.”
Even the paint on the walls have come in for a rethink, and students in recent years have freshened the school with murals of Barack Obama, Frida Kahlo and other historical figures.
“No more battleship gray,” Wilkinson said of the school’s interior décor. “Can we get some color in here, because our students are so colorful.”
Wilkinson, after eight years as principal of the high school and nearly 30 years in the district, is set to retire at the end of the school year. She said the idea of retirement hadn’t been at the fore of her mind until last year, after her dad was diagnosed with cancer and her mother and father-in-law both died. She plans to devote more time caring for her father, who lives in North Carolina, but she will also still be just around the corner from the high school, where she has lived and plans to stay into the future.
“I joke with these guys that I will be fogging up the window from outside writing 'I-miss-you messages' from the outside,” she said.
Wilkinson started in the district as a technology teacher at Oneida Middle School in 1991. She led district-wide training efforts around technology integration and eventually was promoted to principal at Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy.
“Each time I got a new job, it becomes the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it’s the most rewarding job I have ever had,” she said.
Eight years ago, following Larry Spring’s appointment to lead the district, Wilkinson became the new superintendent’s first hire.
“Diane has a tremendous capacity for empathy,” Spring said in a recent interview. “Her overriding strength is her ability to put herself in someone else’s shoes and understand how this situation might make them feel.”
The school improved its graduation rate to 70 percent in August, the highest graduation rate in over a decade. The previous year it was around 60 percent and had trended up and down for a number of years before that. She predicted this year the high school graduation rate would top 71 percent, a goal she said the school has long targeted.
But progress has been uneven. After starting the school year with what Wilkinson called a “crisis” in student attendance, school officials were forced to welcome students back from the winter break with a “reboot” of expectations around student attendance. Over 500 high school students missed at least 20 school days in the first quarter of the school year alone – a time frame that covers about 45 school days. And while the number of students suspended for 10 or more days – suspensions for the most serious infractions – had been on a decline, it spiked to its highest level in at least four years at the start of the year. Wilkinson said the reset of expectations has been effective and that attendance rates and student behavior have improved since students returned.
Her first three years on the job were marked by budget cuts, slashing staff positions, increasing class sizes, eliminating electives and rolling back programs that supported students. And all at a time when she could see the need to invest more – not less – in students.
But in recent years, the school has invested in staffing and programs. During her tenure, the high school has adopted so-called restorative practices, working to address student behavior through constructive rather than punitive ways. The school has also set up numerous spaces where students who have fallen off track for graduation can receive more focused and personalized attention and work to make up course credits or prepare to pass a Regents exam. A number of new student organizations – like the Teen Advocacy Group – have been established to give students outlets to engage in work to improve their own school and community. When students organized walk-outs to protest gun violence as part of a national movement – albeit with a local focus on gun violence in Schenectady – Wilkinson welcomed the activism of her students.
“You have revolutionized the manner in which you advocate for change,” Wilkinson told students during last year’s graduation ceremony.
One Saturday a month for the past seven years, a group of about 25 teachers and administrators – the educational leadership team – have met at the high school to talk about better engaging students educationally. The group conducts book studies and has developed new approaches to reading and critical thinking that has been implemented broadly across the school.
Wilkinson said she constantly looks to engage staff, students and families in a conversation about how to improve the school and how to address challenges.
“It’s not a single administrative voice that makes these decisions, you have to be willing to listen and be influenced by other people’s thinking,” she said. “If this was a one-way street it would only be from my perspective, and that is fundamentally not who I am.”
She said students sometimes get off track or fall behind or misbehave because of the challenges they face outside of school, and it’s incumbent on the school to provide for those kids an opportunity to be welcomed back and allowed an opportunity to pass classes and show they can meet graduation requirements.
“When the opportunity is there for them to get it right, we need to be there, and we need to have a program that can support them when they are ready to do it,” she said. “When they are ready, we need to be there for them and not say. 'nope the time to do that was two years ago.' We can’t do that to our kids.”
The job isn’t easy work, but she said whoever the school’s next principal is will inherit a strong team – the high school’s teachers are proud and protective of the school, she said – and a student body capable of incredible achievements.
“This job isn’t a nine-to-five job: it’s nights, it’s weekends, it’s early mornings, it’s about being accessible,” she said. “You have to come from a place of love in order to do that. If you don’t love it, it’s not going to work out in the end.”