Education News

MUMS is adding a second principal

MIDDLEBURY UNION MIDDLE School in July will transition to a co-principalship to lead the school through, and beyond, some challenging times. The new team will include current MUMS Principal Michael Dudek and Michaela Wisell, the current assistant principal at Mary Hogan Elementary. Photo courtesy of Emily Blistein

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Union Middle School will soon adopt a new leadership structure to help it navigate through recent challenges that have included handling an unusual number of student discipline issues and absorbing, for the first time, sixth-graders from throughout the Addison Central School District.

In a recent email to the community MUMS Principal Michael Dudek said MUMS will transition to a co-principalship, beginning this summer. Dudek’s co-leader will be current Mary Hogan Elementary School Assistant Principal Michaela Wisell.

And thanks to federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, the new leadership team will allow — for at least the 2022-2023 academic year — Karyn Stannard to continue as a MUMS assistant principal.

“With myself, Michaela and Karyn, we have a leadership team who can focus deeply on the academic and social emotional development of our students,” Dudek stated in his email. “We have the skills to help our elementary students transition to MUMS and support MUMS students as they transition to (Middlebury Union High School). And we will be able to focus on establishing shared values as colleagues while strengthening our connections with families.”

It was MUMS Assistant Principal Andrew Conforti’s decision to step down this June that paved the way for the new leadership structure. Conforti — who also served as interim principal at MUMS for a year prior to Dudek’s hiring in 2021 — has accepted a job as principal of Colchester High School.

Dudek thanked Conforti for being a “steady and encouraging presence for our students and colleagues,” and recognized his desire to work closer to his own home.

At the same time, his departure opened up possibilities to adjust the school’s administration.

“When Andrew’s departure became probable, and with the recognition of the challenges MUMS has faced this year, I turned my focus to the future of MUMS,” Dudek said. “Specifically, my attention was placed on how our next leadership team can support a positive school culture and a joyful, resilient community. It is crucial that we commit deeply to the academic and social emotional success of our students, that we strengthen our engagement with all families, and that we build shared values as a staff.”

The challenges at MUMS have been well-chronicled. The Independent reported last October that MUMS was experiencing an acute shortage of substitute teachers, while at the same time contending with substantial student discipline problems that included reports of hallways filled with yelling and foul language, pupils refusing to do what they’re asked, and law enforcement called in on occasion to help deal with out-of-control students.

Dudek, his team and other ACSD officials joined forces to tackle these problems, which were primarily attributed to students reintegrating into a classroom setting after having studied remotely at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy has included new hires, new programming and help from the community.

While things have gotten better in recent months, last week was a tough one at MUMS. The latest Middlebury crime log indicated local police were called to MUMS on April 5 on a report of a “possible assault involving three students,” and on both April 4 and 7 to assist school officials with an out-of-control student.

Shared leadership will allow for a more nimble response to such problems and will lead to a more solid foundation for the school, according to Dudek.

“As we anticipate the need for stability with MUMS’s leadership team, we determined that a co-principal model would allow us to build a vision together, have faster responses to the needs of our community and systems, and have a deeper impact on the future of MUMS,” he said. “While Vermont and the nation are facing unprecedented turnover in school leadership, we feel lucky to secure such strong leadership at MUMS and in ACSD.”

Dudek said Wisell was the perfect candidate to serve as MUMS’ co-pilot. And she will have already known many of the MUMS students from their Mary Hogan Elementary School years.

“Michaela has built a career dedicated to supporting the complex needs of students, developing shared values and trust among colleagues, and establishing bridges between families and the school community,” he said. “Michaela also has deep expertise in social emotional and behavioral practices. And perhaps most important to the current needs of MUMS, Michaela brings strong relationships with hundreds of current and incoming MUMS students and families.”

Wisell was candid in stating, during a recent Zoom meeting with the Independent and Dudek, that the MUMS job offer was crucial to her remaining with the ACSD next year. She had a standing offer for a principalship at another school.

“I’m excited to stay in ACSD,” she said.

In terms of division of responsibilities, Dudek sees himself specializing in instructional leadership and working more with the older MUMS students, given his past experience as a high school administrator, while Wisell — given her background at Mary Hogan — will devote greater attention to the younger students and programming aimed at children’s social/emotional needs. In this manner, the co-leaders believe MUMS will prepare incoming sixth-graders for a solid middle-school experience, while readying eighth-graders for their jump to MUHS.

Stannard will take a lead with the school’s highest-needs students, according to Dudek.

Wisell believes there’s good chemistry among members of the MUMS leadership team, and she’s anxious to get started in her new role.

“So much of the work we do in schools is with families, and it’s about relationships,” Wisell said. “That’s really suffered during the pandemic. I think middle-schoolers and all students are learning a lot about communication, relationships and inter-personal skills. And it’s beneficial to do that work with people you know. The three of us all have relationships with so many of these kids in so many different scenarios, for so many different reasons. That can only strengthen our leadership.”

Meanwhile, Mary Hogan Elementary School Principal Jen Kravitz is turning her attention to replacing Wisell. She’s posted the impending assistant principal vacancy on SchoolSpring, and will soon form an interview committee.

“Michaela has been an integral member of the Mary Hogan community over the past three years,” Kravitz said through an email to the Mary Hogan community. “She has been a tremendous support for students, teachers and families, particularly during the pandemic. We will miss her at Mary Hogan and also look forward to having her in a role where she can directly support our fifth-graders and their families in the transition to MUMS.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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