For many, it is difficult to understand why a successful and well-liked high school principal would be fired, with no advance notice or conversation with the community that he serves.
At the moment, more than 2,500 students and parents have signed a petition that seeks an explanation from the School Board and Superintendent.
I attended yesterday’s 12:30 p.m. demonstration by Princeton High School students, held outside the school entrance. What I learned was important. Foremost that students had come together, and that student-after-student spoke eloquently about Principal Chmiel’s impact on the school’s community of students. And these were not just pro-forma statements, but, instead, insightful and passionate recollections of how Chmiel cares personally not only about the day-to-day workings of the school, but also about the sense of belonging of individual students (who he knows by name). I also learned how a spirit of shared pride has grown among students under Chmiel’s leadership. It was clear that Chmiel engages actively and regularly with students — as individuals and in diverse groups — with the goal of listening, of communicating, and of seeking shared understanding.
This all stands in sharp contrast to the School Board’s sudden decision to fire Chmiel. Students and families at the event were first and foremost seeking answers. Why the sudden decision? Was this jarring action absolutely necessary, especially since the board could in a few weeks simply choose not to extend Chmiel’s appointment (and thus defray at least some of the cost to the community as well as Chmiel’s reputation)? And, more deeply: Why the lack of in-person communication between the board and students, or the families that make up the stakeholders that the board serves? Should these communities not have a voice? If not, why not?
The School Board has now followed Friday’s email, which disclosed the firing, by an extraordinary weekend statement that “the board cannot say more” owing to privacy rights. But this comes across as unnecessarily defensive and an incorrect interpretation of the situation. Serious questions have been raised that do not threaten privacy, but rather seeks answers in general, and clarity about the relationship between the board, students and stakeholder families in particular.
There is no question that this incident is imposing — and may in the future impose — a substantial cost not only to Princeton High School, but also the unified school district and the community writ large.
But my concern is whether the highest cost will be borne by the very students who the school system is entrusted to prepare for a future life.
Without more clarity about this situation, what will today’s Princeton High School Students learn? That society works through abrupt decisions with little input from the affected community? That government functions by avoiding questions that seek clarity? And, ultimately, will this experience teach students that they enter a world based on principles of reason, fairness and communication? Or not?
It is not possible to know answers to any of these questions without more information and clarity. The School Board has an opportunity to make things right, and to strike a healthy path forward based on shared trust and understanding. Absent this, the lesson may be costly, and especially so to our high school students.
Princeton High School parent