Platteville High School sophomores, juniors and seniors started classes today.
Those students were likely to find a different atmosphere at PHS, because of their new principal, Tim Engh.
“I think immediately there’s going to be a harder stance on school expectations generally … holding kids accountable,” said Engh, who replaced Jeff Jacobson, who now is the Dodgeville superintendent. “Discipline is something I do well.”
That doesn’t mean Engh is critical of Jacobson: “He got us in such a great position academically as far as student achievement. It’s easier to maintain that while providing a more intense focus on discipline and follow-through.”
Engh’s definition of that “harder stance on school expectations” is “more consistency and feedback from school as far as discipline concerns. We’re going to try to communicate more with parents and students, on all students, not just concerns.”
Engh’s definition of “discipline” was developed in his nine years of experience as a middle school counselor.
“It’s about empathizing, but it’s about understanding that school, while it might be all of my life, it’s not necessarily the center of everybody’s life,” he said. “While there are rules we uphold and policies we support, when kids come in on a disciplinary referral, it gives an opportunity to teach. When you’re a counselor, your class is one kid at a time; you have an opportunity to explore all of that person, not just the classroom. It’s about treating kids as a person, as an individual — that you made a decision, and there are consequences, but how do we move past that.”
Engh formerly worked with students “in rehabilitation facilities who didn’t have anything — if you came in [to being a principal] as a teacher, you wouldn’t have that background. I do.”
Engh, a Watertown native who graduated in psychology from UW–La Crosse and did master’s work at Winona State University and UW–Whitewater, was the dean of students at Merrill High School for two years. Engh said the Merrill principal “let me take on whatever I wanted” as dean of students given the stepping-stone nature of the job.
“The thing that drew me to Platteville was the community, really,” said Engh. “I was offered jobs in other places, but none of them compared to Platteville as a community. Platteville has everything a young family could want.
“We’ve been very happy. The thing that blows me away is how friendly everybody is, and how they’ve been inviting me into their groups.”
Engh got a high recommendation from Merrill counselor John Paul, who lived in Platteville while he coached football at Potosi High School in the 1990s: “Platteville, you don’t want to pass up on that.”
One reason is Platteville’s being a college town. “Maybe it’s because of the university and maybe it isn’t, but you go anywhere in Wisconsin and you say Platteville, and they know where that is,” he said. “You get picked to pilot new programs, and you get to do them first.”
Engh was a middle school counselor before moving to administration.
“A good counselor, number one, always puts the kids first,” he said. “The cool thing about counseling is they’re at the front of school; they get to see everything.”
As part of continuing education requirements, he said, “I took a school administration class, and I was hooked. Counseling was great, but it wasn’t enough. Counselors are part of the decision-making process, but I wanted to make the decisions.
“You’re involved in a lot more bigger-scope ideas. I got to be involved a lot more in curriculum; I got to be involved a lot more in policies. Instead of upholding policies, I’ll be involved in making policies.”
Some of those policies are in reaction to state legislators, Congress and state and federal education departments telling schools what to do.
“It raises our expectations, and that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “Our resources are probably better than most.”
Engh’s definition of being a great principal starts with interactions with students: “It’s like you’re the only person in the room when they talk to you — they’re in the moment.
“A person has to have some pretty good life experience; that makes a big difference. I don’t think there’s a recipe that you have to have this experience or that experience. You have to like kids, you have to be concerned about curriculum, you have to have confidence with being in public, and you have to be your own person.”
Once Engh moved into administration, he figured out he liked the high school atmosphere the best.
“I’m a high school guy,” he said. “I really enjoy the conversations that you can have at this level with kids. It makes me excited to have kids [that] can see their future and make plans for that — you’ve got to have the skills to see the bigger picture for what affects kids the most.”
Engh has specific ideas of what PHS students should be able to accomplish in their four years.
“When a kid leaves here, it’s our job that when they walk out the door they can basically choose what they want to do — that they have the skills and the abilities to decide what it is they want to do,” he said. “And when we fail it’s because they don’t have the choice to go to a four-year college, a two-year college, or the skills to be able to go to work.”
Engh has two children attending Neal Wilkins Elementary Learning Center starting this week. He admits that when he was a high school student, he had no idea what a high school principal did.
“When you’re a high school student, you don’t know what those people are about — they’re in a different world,” he said.
Engh thinks Platteville High School is “on the cusp of being one of the premier high schools in the state. We’re really close. Kids are lucky to be here.”