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Illahee principal ranks among Washington's finest

Jerry Warren was named the top assistant principal in the state for 2011 by the Association of Washington School Principals for his work at Federal Way High School. He was notified about his winning the award last year, but has since moved up to principal of Illahee Middle School. He was honored for the award at a ceremony last week in Seattle.  - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
Jerry Warren was named the top assistant principal in the state for 2011 by the Association of Washington School Principals for his work at Federal Way High School. He was notified about his winning the award last year, but has since moved up to principal of Illahee Middle School. He was honored for the award at a ceremony last week in Seattle.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

It’s just after 8 a.m. Tuesday, and Illahee Middle School Principal Jerry Warren is already cleaning up.

Walking through one of the many courtyards that bind the Illahee campus, he notices an errant pink candy wrapper on the ground. With a walkie-talkie in one hand, he bends down, scoops it up and continues on his way without missing a beat.

He patrols the campus, going from building to building, peeking in classrooms, greeting teachers and students and picking up trash (he would later rescue two perfectly good No. 2 pencils from oblivion in a gutter). It’s one routine in a day that often breaches 10 hours. Each day, he confronts problems in a school with a student population of more than 800 fifth- through eighth-graders; one moment, he’s chatting with a student, the next he’s scheduling events for the rest of the school year.

There’s evidence he’s quite good at what he does. Warren was named the top assistant principal in the entire state for 2011 by the Association of Washington School Principals for his work at Federal Way High School. He was notified about his winning the award last year, but has since moved up to principal of Illahee. He was honored for the award at a ceremony last week in Seattle.

He’s modest about the award — “I’m not the type of person who goes into this looking for accolades” — and lists a couple of reasons why he won. First, his former boss, Federal Way High School Principal Lisa Griebel, nominated him. He said that he has a strong work ethic, a passion for kids and a knack for allaying parents’ concerns.

Griebel’s nomination letter for Warren to the Association of Washington School Principals is more specific: Warren created “a comprehensive minority student program, an accessible parent involvement plan, a streamlined discipline model, and a model athletic program focusing on the ‘student’ in student athlete. Each of these areas contributes overall to the rising WASL test scores in our building, the positive school climate, and the enhanced parent/staff relationships.”

Unexpected day

A typical morning for Warren is a mix of meetings and on-campus interactions. The first stop on his rounds Tuesday morning was Ron Hazenberg’s band class. He exchanged greetings with Hazenberg, and on the way out a student shouted something to the effect of, “Mr. Warren is the best principal!”

Leaving Hazenberg’s class, he conceded that he has a soft spot for the music department, having played drums in his high school’s orchestra and sang in the choir. Next, in Karen Bounds’ music class, one student practically falls out of her chair trying to get Warren’s attention, loudly whispering “Mr. Warren!, Mr. Warren!” Bounds teases Warren that he should join the class in singing a Katy Perry tune.

He walks briskly across campus, stopping in to see substitute teachers and thanking them for being there. In a math class, he leans down next to a student he knows and discusses what’s being taught. He stops in at the gym class where students are running relay races, a Phil Collins song blaring in the background. Talking to coach Frank Wood (who has also won accolades for his work), Wood commented on how good work gets done at school: “It’s all of us, starting with you on down.”

“The thing I value is making connections with students and staff,” Warren said. “When people see you really care about them, they will in turn work hard to do what’s best.”

Later, Warren sits down with the school’s office manager, Janice Ono (one of several people in his office whom he credits as being vital), to work out the school’s schedule. Amid the routine of planning events like “kids day” and a Lions Club awards dinner, Illahee’s school resource officer steps in to report that a small knife was found in a truant student’s backpack.

The officer explained to Warren that the student was found around the edge of campus, trying to cut class. The student had left his backpack in school, and the police discovered what was described as a tiny “paring knife.” The officer suspected that the student is involved in a gang and was carrying the knife for protection outside of school.

“For outside of school?” Warren responded with concern and incredulity.

Warren is assured that the situation is being handled by Dean of Students Jamie Morris (a job he once held), then resumes scheduling with Ono.

A history at Illahee

Warren grew up in a neighborhood in northeast Portland, Ore. While attending Lewis and Clark College in Portland, he thought he wanted to be a school counselor. He later discovered a knack for teaching and coaching. He worked his way up to head of the athletic department at the Reynolds School District, east of Portland.

Warren came to live in Federal Way after taking a job at the Seattle Comprehensive Health Education Foundation. He was convinced to join an advisory team at Illahee (all three of his kids went to Illahee, then to Federal Way High School) comprised of parents, teachers and administrators. By 2002, he was dean of students.

He eventually moved up to an assistant principal spot at Federal Way High School, brought there by Randy Kaczor, now principal at Todd Beamer High School.

Griebel, who also knew Warren from working at Illahee, found him indispensable after she took over as principal at Federal Way. Griebel said Warren had many duties at Federal Way. He was in charge of discipline and supervision of students and campus; he was the administrator in charge of athletics and the AVID (advancement via individual determination) program.

Warren said he liked his time at Federal Way, but always wanted to move into a principal slot.

“I wasn’t looking to just be (a principal) somewhere,” he said of his move back to Illahee. “I know the belief system the staff had here and the value placed on building relationships. I wanted to get back to that.”

A lot of responsibility

Though he’s moved on to a different job, there are similarities between being assistant principal and being the head honcho. His days can still be unpredictable, and he deals with all manner of school issues.

He’s still relatively new — as principal — at Illahee, having started last fall. He doesn’t know every student’s name, but he said he knows all their faces. Standing in front of Illahee, a lone student walks by, head down. Warren calls out his name and asks him where he’s going. The student responds solemnly, “to class.” Warren smiles, as if he understands the lack of excitement over academics that can sometimes befall a middle schooler. But he knows how important his job is, and middle school is an important time in a child’s development.

“This is the time when they begin to determine what their future might be,” he said. “They either decide to love school or hate school.”

Now that he’s in charge, he’s the one everyone goes to with their problems. But he seems up for the challenge.

“Whatever happens is your responsibility,” he said. “If (for example) a parent is not happy, of course they’re going to bring it to the principal.”

“As a principal, everything rests on your shoulders.”

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