By Vivian Collings
The saying at the corner of the hallway across from the main office in Haliburton Highlands Secondary School rings true for principal Jenn Mills and vice principal Martin Gage.
Both are graduates of HHSS, and the Red Hawks alumni have taken their new positions by the talons to lead the school to be an inclusive environment full of opportunities.
“We want to reach everyone, and we want everyone that comes through these doors to feel connected to the school, not just in academics, but in other ways, too,” said Mills. “We want the students’ mental health, wellbeing, and sense of belonging to be a top priority.”
Since transitioning from vice principal to principal when Chris Boulay took a position with the Trillium Lakelands District School Board, Mills has put a strong emphasis on “school life”, which was her favourite part of attending HHSS as a teenager.
Although some things have changed since she walked the halls lined with red lockers and encouraging quotes, the benefits of extracurriculars have not.
“My main message to students is to find a way to get involved. It helps you meet more people outside your social groups and you get to know the staff in a different environment. And this hasn’t changed,” she said. “My favourite part of HHSS as a teenager was being involved in school life, being on sports teams, getting involved in activities or school events, and creating lasting friendships.”
In addition to academics, students can choose to be part of plenty of different clubs, sports, or social activities, all run by staff members who volunteer their time or the students themselves.
The school offers Interact, eco, math, chess, knitting, and book clubs as well as intramural and team sports.
Events like school dances and spirit days have returned.
To address students’ mental health, the school’s counselor Nichole Fielder and other staff members are launching the Self Care Crew and have created a safe space for students to spend time in and learn about wellness.
“We couldn’t do any of it without the amazing staff here,” Mills said.
The energy at the school is palpable. For the staff at HHSS, teaching isn’t just a job, which, in turn, broadens the definition of being a student at the school.
“Our staff put so much into volunteering extra time to create opportunities outside the classroom. I think the kids notice it,” she said.
It helps to forge new relationships between staff and students built on mutual respect.
“They don’t just see them as their teachers. That’s the goal, to have a culture of inclusivity among everyone at the school,” Mills said.
Although she didn’t know how her career would play out at the time, the HHSS alumna had teaching at the back of her mind since walking across the stage at graduation.
After receiving her undergraduate and master’s degree, Mill’s plan was to get her doctorate to become a professor, but the highlands were calling her back.
“My husband and I both wanted to come back to Haliburton County to raise a family and be closer to our families, so I took the path to teacher’s college, and I am so glad I did. I love this community,” she said.
It was the same for Gage, who has lived in Haliburton since age 11.
He worked as a teacher in Haliburton County from 2008 until 2017, and then took a position as vice principal of Bobcaygeon Public School, transitioning to Adult and Alternate Learning Education, and then working at Fenelon Falls Secondary School before returning home.
“The position of vice principal wasn’t something I always wanted, but is something I grew to want. The most rewarding part is getting to work with the many amazing students I have met over the years, and watching them grow into young adults,” Gage said.
Mills said Gage has been an integral part of the team. Both are excited for the future of the school and to continue providing more opportunities for students that they will take with them for their entire lives.
“We’ll create the spaces, the clubs and the activities when students ask. That’s why I love it here so much. The energy in this school in both the staff and students is so welcoming, fun, and inviting,” Mills said.
By Vivian Collings