Webbley named state’s top principal

VERGENNES — The Vermont Principals’ Association announced last week that Vergennes Union High School Co-Principal Ed Webbley has been chosen as the organization’s Robert F. Pierce Vermont Secondary Principal of the Year.
Webbley becomes the second VUHS principal in the past decade to earn that honor: The VPA presented former VUHS school head Peter Coffey with the same award in 2002.
VPA Executive Director Ken Page noted not only that repeat recognition, but also that:
•  VUHS middle school teacher Jenn Lawson is the current Vermont Teacher of the Year.
•  Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien was named the 2010 Vermont Superintendent of the Year.
•  VUHS teacher Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis recently won the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award for creative teaching of history.
•  VUHS is the only high school in Vermont with two Rowland Fellows, language teachers Matt DeBlois and Kristine Kirkaldy.
“Obviously, Vergennes is on the rise,” Page said. “It’s a great tribute.”
Webbley said he believed his award came because of the collective efforts of all the VUHS staff members and administrators, including his co-principal, Peter Reynolds, who have worked hard to improve the school’s academics and atmosphere.
“This award honors our teachers to a person. Change is hard, but it is easier with … a host of motivated, caring professionals,” Webbley said, adding, “Honors come, I guess, to those surrounded by good people.”
Webbley also credited those who make up the majority in the building.
“This award honors our students,” he said. “It honors our two National Merit Scholars. It honors our winners at the 30th Annual Congressional Art Competition. It honors our musicians and their countless awards. It honors our athletes, our thespians, our Future Farmers of America. It honors our community service.”
But Page and O’Brien said Webbley shouldn’t be too quick to give away all the credit. VUHS in the past few years has put in place a system in which morning meeting teachers serve as academic advisers for students for their four-year high school careers.
At the same time, the school carved out time in the middle of the day so that students who need extra time with teachers to master their course work can meet with them before the students fall too far behind; the period is known as “callback” time. Teachers contact students who need help through their morning advisors.
Meanwhile, another effort has been launched to create “Performance-Based Graduation Requirements,” that are being designed with both faculty and student input. Webbley said the goal is to require students to “demonstrate the performance of critical skills and knowledge by way of a constructed four-year portfolio.”
Page, a former longtime principal, said running a school while such major changes are being made is not easy.
“(Webbley) is well-deserving for the work he has done,” Page said. “It isn’t easy getting everybody pulling in the same direction.”
O’Brien said managing that process involves skill. 
“In my opinion, that requires significant management ability,” he said. 
Also at the same time, VUHS administrators have cultivated “teacher-leaders.” For example, when VUHS was invited last month to a New England conference to present on its effort to transform its academic program, math teacher Nancy Ambrose, science teacher Sarah Thompson, special educator Kara Griswold, Kirkaldy and DeBlois joined Webbley. Math teacher Teresa Smith and Kirkaldy have also run faculty meetings in the past two years.
Again, O’Brien said Webbley’s vision has let others flourish.
“There are significant opportunities for teachers to become leaders in that transformation process,” O’Brien said. “To do that kind of work … not only do you have to be a leader, but you have to allow others to be leaders as well, and that’s what’s made the difference.”
Page said Reynolds nominated Webbley for the award, and Webbley was chosen jointly by the 15-member VPA executive committee and seven 2010 VPA award-winners.
The criteria are “ability to set direction for the organization, to develop the people in the organization, to redesign the organization (defined as the ability to provide workplace conditions to let motivation and capacities grow) and the ability to manage the instructional program.”
Webbley said for him personally the recognition “validates my conviction that a high school principal should be the lead teacher … rather than a middle manager,” and “further justifies a choice of profession that has sustained my curiosity and passion for 32 years,” during which he has also taught English and philosophy; coached football, wrestling and track; and served as a department head and assistant principal.
He also said he appreciated the sacrifices made by his wife, Carrie, and his son and daughter to allow him to spend the long hours needed to serve as a principal.
Webbley said he “inherited a school that cares deeply for its students and community,” but believes the work that has been done by the many others to make VUHS even better is reflected in his honor.
“This award celebrates the changes we have made at VUHS,” he said.
Ultimately, Page said there is probably plenty of credit to share.
“It does say for your community, ‘Good going, huh?’” he said. “It’s wonderful.” 
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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