Working through new challenges is something newly hired Pre-K through second-grade principal Wendy Starwalt enjoys.
With the retirement of Sangamon Elementary’s Principal Mark Cabutti and the upcoming retirement of Middletown Elementary’s Principal Carol Shallenberger, Starwalt will take the helm at both Sangamon and Middletown in the upcoming 2017-2018 school year. Shallenberger will become Starwalt’s assistant until she retires in 2018.
Starwalt said she was in a similar situation when she became principal at Dr. Howard Elementary.
“When I went to Dr. Howard to take the job, it was basically trying to turn the building around,” she said. “So I had done a lot of work with adults, adult mindset and bringing the staff together. So this (job) became intriguing because it’s going to be a lot of adult work and adults coming together to be under one big school so to me, it was a new challenge.”
“It’s not Mark’s job or Carol’s job. It’s a completely different job.”
Because the two elementary schools will merge when the renovation and addition of the Middletown Prairie building is completed in the 2019-2020 school year, Starwalt said there will be a lot of work to bring people together.
“It’s not as simple as just the all of us from Sangamon are going to show up (at Middletown) in a year, she said. People have had ways of doing things, systems that have been in place because they are two smaller buildings, and we are going to move to a larger building; what’s that going to look like? Even down to arrival, dismissal, lunch, recess, those are the easy ones in my head. but it’s more of staffs are going to be joined. Both schools will go from a staff of 20 to a staff of probably up in the upper 60s by the time we all get together.”
To bridge the two staffs, Starwalt said staff meetings will be held together over the next year so that all staff members can “blend their thoughts.”
“Philosophically we want to make sure we are on the same page, meeting all the needs of the kids,” she said.
Having a building that students can spend three years in, like they do at Lincoln Trail and Mahomet-Seymour Junior High is something Starwalt believes will benefit the Mahomet community.
“It’s exciting because there won’t be that distinction between the Pre-K-K building and first and second grade,” she said. “I think it will be nice when it finally gets here.”
But getting to that point for Starwalt may be kind of tricky.
Being a principal between two separate buildings is something Starwalt has researched, and she’s found that it others have had success by spending the morning hours at one building and afternoon hours at the other building.
“Because then staff, kids and parents have access to you every day at some point, she said. “I’m going to see what the staff thinks, how they feel like they need access.”
Starwalt said she is torn between being at Middletown Elementary as new kindergarten students and parents arrive on the first day and Sangamon Elementary because she doesn’t want the staff there to feel like they’ve been abandoned.
“It’s one year, and I’m just going to do the best I can,” she said.
Starwalt, who began college in exercise physiology decided to pursue a career in education when she visited a practicum in a school in Champaign with Jeff, her husband, during her junior year of college.
“It just clicked on me; like, this is what I want to do,” she said. “And then I’ve just loved it ever since.”
Starwalt taught in middle school and elementary school and has been a principal in the high school and elementary levels.
“I started out as an eighth science teacher in middle school, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this age!’ Then an opportunity came up to go to the high school, I was an assistant principal, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I love high school!’ And then when I stayed home for seven years, the first thing that popped open was an elementary job and now since I’ve been there, I love, love, love elementary. And what’s enticing for Mahomet, my favorite is the K-2. I’ve never done Pre-K, but I love K-2. I love it because they are learning to read, their learning number numeracy; I love the growth on them,” she said.
During the time Starwalt taught P.E. at Carrie Busey after she returned to education after staying at home with her daughters, she also worked on grants and programming to bring in money for the “health and wellness” theme for the Unit 4 new building. Starwalt said she was able to provide exciting opportunities for students such being a part of videos with Olympic athletes and the opportunity to be in books.
“It was just like this golden ride,” she said.
But she knew she wanted to get back into administration, too. So when the principal job at Dr. Howard opened up, she applied and was hired.
Starwalt said her experience as a teacher helps to guide her as a principal.
“The fear is always that you’ll get too far away from (teaching), that you’re going to start to lose touch,” she said. “I feel like the teachers are in the trenches every day; they’ve got this broad range of children in their room, with varying abilities, social and emotional needs; elementary teachers work like crazy.”
“I worked for some great principals who were aware of what I was doing in the classroom, and how much they could push me, and when they needed to pull back because it was too much,” she continued. “That’s where I like to be, so I like to know people really well so that I know what is going on in the classroom, what’s going on with them personally, that way I know how it’s affecting kids and how I can best support that.”
“I am very much a support person,” she said. “I can make things happen, I’m supposed to make things happen for teachers to make their job successful, make it smooth for them in the day-to-day operations of the building.”
Over the course of the next year Starwalt hopes to get to know the staff well enough that she can support them. She also hopes that the staff will get to know each other better during staff meetings.
“A lot of them don’t know each other, which makes me feel good because I hardly know anybody,” she said.
Starwalt is not a stranger to all in the Mahomet-Seymour School District, though. Her husband is the principal at Lincoln Trail Elementary, but she said that won’t phase her.
“It doesn’t even phase me,” she said. “I guess I don’t have any opinion about it. We’ve been in education so long that every night we’re breaking down what happened. He said it’s not going to be any different, except for now we’ll be talking about the same district.”
Wendy did ask Jeff if they would carpool to school. The Starwalts closed on their home in Mahomet on the same day as Wendy was offered the principal position. The couple wanted to downsize, but to also be closer to Wendy’s work in Champaign.
“I said we’ve got to come my way, I work 15-hour days in Champaign; I want to be closer and our daughter got married. I wanted to be closer to her,” she said.
Starwalt said she wasn’t really looking for a new job, but “people had talked to me about it, and I was intrigued by (this position).”
She also said that she and Jeff have talked about ways to come together to bridge the gap between students moving from second to third grade when the time comes.