Mark Hayward's City Matters: Veteran principal helps Manchester West High find its pride
As a Manchester high school principal for more than two decades, John Rist has confronted his share of unruly students, scheduling snafus, problem teachers and (what seems the biggest issue in Manchester) struggling football teams.
But this year, Rist - the veteran principal who came out of retirement in February to head Manchester High School West - has another box on his to-do list: reinvigorate a high school.
No doubt, West High is in a funk.
Since September, it has generated the juicy, tawdry news stories that everyone loves to read, except those connected to the school. A well-liked principal pushed out for secret reasons. A coach accused of dalliance with a student. The highest dropout rate in the state. Recurring rumors the school will close.
"The positive kids don't get recognition in this building. The negativity is overwhelming," grumbled Jim McGeough, a veteran mathematics teacher, during my visit this week.
"There's so much good about this place," Rist said in his office, recently recoated in beige paint to cover up the pink favored by his predecessor, MaryEllen McGorry. "We've suffered under a strain of negativity. I don't think people know anything about us anymore."
Rist, 63, is known for his deep, bark-like voice that masks a somewhat softer demeanor. A Connecticut resident, he started his New Hampshire career in 1982 at the New Skills Center.
As principal, he had it rechristened Manchester School of Technology. In the fall of 2002, he landed the premiere principal job in Manchester schools - Central High principal - and stayed for 10 years.
There, he won accreditation for the school and pushed up student involvement. Test scores rose, dropout rates fell, and in what he has said is his biggest accomplishment, the school's intangible quality of Central Pride flourished.
His job across the river is harder.
Give him 10 years, he may be able to do the same for West. But Rist is more than halfway through his roughly 18 weeks at the helm at West. So he has become part pitch man, part motivational speaker for the school.
Several students praised Rist for the enthusiasm and motivation he has brought to the school.
"He's everywhere. He knows exactly what he needs from students and gets it," said Rachel Avard, a junior.
In fact, students said McGorry seemed to focus on problem students, where Rist makes more of an effort to reach everyone.
On his first day at West, he shook the hand of every student and teacher, said senior Cordel Rubio. ("Kind of unsanitary," he added.) And at the end of the winter grading period, Rist gave ice cream to every student on the honor roll and principal's list.
"Mrs. McGorry was definitely more strict. Mr. Rist came in on a more personal level," said MacKenzie Keefe, another senior.
Rist said if he's going to jump start West's psyche, he has to reach everyone. But that doesn't mean he is ignoring struggling students.
West has the highest dropout rate in the state - 18 percent over four years. A student who cuts school today is tomorrow's drop out, so Rist said he calls parents when a student doesn't show up for school. Some work with him, others say they can't reach their child.
"Everyone who works here is to blame for the dropout rate. Everyone who works here is to blame for the failure rate. We have to take ownership of that," Rist said.
Rist said he is a strong supporter of Common Core, which he believes will deliver more depth of knowledge to the study of math and English. And he expects valuable suggestions will emerge when the Center for Secondary School Reform releases its year-long study into the climate and culture at the school.
Rist said West's small size, 1,100 students, is an advantage. Fewer students mean fewer fights, less graffiti and a cleaner building, he said.
Most people who try out for a team get a spot. And the cohesiveness of the West Side means that most people at West have grown up together.
Stephen Houle, a social studies teacher retiring after 39 years at West, said Rist brought stability to the school. He said the two assistant principals were overwhelmed when McGorry was put on paid leave, and Rist's arrival took the pressure off them.
He said the faculty trusts Rist.
As for the future, Rist rules out staying on. He's already given up a lot for the West job, he said. Balance his 32-hour, $90-an-hour salary, he said, against the fact he can't collect Social Security. He has to pay for his benefits. And he also gave up volunteer positions on the state Board of Education, the Central Pride Foundation and the Central High ski team.
Leadership is what is needed for the next principal, Rist said. That's as simple as keeping a high profile, motivating people and giving them a pat on the back when they do well. Already, he said, the failure rate has dropped a little and the honor roll has grown.
But can West cultivate the Central Pride that Rist so admires? "This is not Central, no," he said, frankly.
But the school has a long legacy and a lot of positives, he said. They include the city's only Junior ROTC program, an award-winning theater program, and Ivy League placement for top grads.
It just has to keep trumpeting its triumphs, Rist said.
"I'm sure there's a Hall of Fame here," he said, "but I don't know where it is."
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.