As classes resumed Tuesday, Elmira District Secondary School’s new principal was out in the hallways, getting to know new and returning students alike. There’s plenty to do, but the first priority is connecting with the kids, helping to ensure the school provides a safe and positive environment.
Paul Morgan has had a lengthy career as a teacher, vice-principal and most recently, principal at a number of schools in Waterloo Region such as Eastwood Collegiate in Kitchener and Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School in Waterloo. Coming from Forest Heights Collegiate, where he was acting principal last year, he’s made EDSS the fourth school he’s worked at in two years. Now, he gets to enjoy the position of principal at what he calls a topnotch school.
“I feel myself to be very fortunate. It’s a community school and you can sense it. This is truly Elmira’s high school and people take pride in it,” he said on Wednesday, two days into the new term.
Part of Morgan’s challenge as a new principal is to get to know his department heads and their concerns.“Whenever you come into a new school … it takes some time,” he said, explaining that he plans to discuss other issues once classes are in full swing.
During the first week of school, new students – typically freshmen going into Grade 9 – can be nervous about the transition, he notes. This is the time of year when educators strive to create connections between new arrivals and their older schoolmates while avoiding bullying tactics such as initiation rituals, an issue getting extra attention given new provincial anti-bullying legislation that came into effect with the new school year.
Initiation or hazing is a form of bullying involving older students pressuring or in extreme cases forcing new kids to participate in various, often embarrassing activities in order to gain acceptance of their peers.
So far no incidents have been reported, and Morgan is optimistic that will remain the case. The school, like all institutions, has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to initiations.
“Bullying is prevalent in every school. Our job is to make sure that we deal with it effectively, that we help both the bully and the bullied. Making a school have a safe culture, you want kids to be able to come to school and feel good about being here. We talked about that yesterday in the opening assemblies,” Morgan said.
But enforcing the rule is the real challenge and Morgan believes he is successful in beginning to gain the trust of his students.
On the subject of anti-bullying measures, Morgan is hopeful they will work. He said he feels the new legislation is only a part of the fight against bullying and schools have already implemented many necessary programs to help students feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. Among the programs in place are the LGBT and Gay-Straight alliance groups that support students of different gender and sexual orientations.
As a preventative measure, there are organized activities at the school targeted at Grade 9 students. Lunchtime movies and barbecues help new students to socialize with older schoolmates and create an environment of positive transition into a new school.
Peter Rubenschuh, a former EDSS principal and assistant superintendant of learning services at the WRDSB, shares the same outlook.
The Waterloo Region District School Board has programs in place to rehabilitate bullies who have been expelled. As well, it collaborates with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board on anti-bullying procedures in order to keep policies consistent, he said.
“What we try to do is not tell schools that there is only one way to address bullying.”
At EDSS, Morgan is determined to be visible, not shying away from students. Instead of spending time in his office, he is walking the halls and talking to kids, some of whom already feel comfortable enough to approach him and introduce themselves.
“You try and connect with kids. I mean the whole thing is about kids, right? You try to be visible. I made an offer yesterday during the assembly that if you see me in the hall, I’m pretty lonely because I don’t know anybody,” he joked.