VASD new principals

From left, Country View Elementary School principal Jessica Beem, Stoner Prairie Elementary School principal Julie Musgrove and Savanna Oaks Middle School principal Paris Echoles. The three administrators, all new to their buildings and the Verona Area School District, have started their tenures during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating both challenges and new ways to learn for staff and students.

When the school doors close, another set opens – which will allow education to be rethought, and relationships with students, families and staff to take a different shape.

That’s how the district’s three new principals see it as they take over as the heads of Stoner Prairie and Country View elementary schools and Savanna Oaks Middle School. It comes at a time when either no students or limited numbers of them will be walking through school doors Sept. 8.

At Stoner Prairie, Julie Musgrove will succeed former principal Tammy Thompson-Kapp, who resigned from the district this year after taking an administrative role in the Baraboo School District. Jessica Beem, at Country View, and Paris Echoles, at Savanna Oaks, are succeeding two retiring administrators, Michelle Nummerdor and Sandy Eskrich, respectively.

All three have experience in understanding behavior and working with students who need extra support. Echoles piloted the “micro-school” concept while in the Madison Metropolitan School District, and Beem worked with school districts in Iowa to support students with autism spectrum disorder. Musgrove helped implement the 4K program for the Milton School District.

All three also cited the importance of building strong relationships with students as a necessary part of their work as educators.

Musgrove said reimagining what education looks like during a global pandemic, as unideal as it is, will lead to growth for staff and families.

“It’s going to bring our school community closer together because we’re going to have to work and navigate it together,” she said. “We are going to learn from it and go back and reflect on the good things that happened, and the things we can grow from and learn from.”

Beem said that starting at a new school while separated from staff, students and their families isn’t the ideal way to start the school year, but acknowledged that she thinks it’s a great opportunity to think about how to do things differently.

“The hardest piece is right now, knowing you can’t bring staff altogether for that human connectedness, and how to celebrate a Back-to-School virtually,” she said. “But there’s creative ways to do that, and it’s been fun to push my thinking of how can you bring that cohesiveness in a virtual world, so everyone’s safe?”

Echoles said he is looking forward to getting to know all of Savanna Oaks’ families and providing support to its students of color. As a Black man, Echoles said, he’s been inundated with messages his entire life that because of his skin color, that he and others who look like him lack brilliance or greatness within them.

It makes him want to bring a different message to the students at Savanna Oaks.

“We’re in a district where all students are not having success – I want to be a part of changing that narrative,” he said. “Hopefully moving in a direction where every student can be successful, the color of your skin or your story is not going to determine your outcomes, academically and socially.”

Paris Echoles

Echoles has been teaching since around the age of 9.

Not officially, of course. But as the oldest of three siblings – all raised by their single mother after their father died when he was three – Echoles took charge of making sure his younger siblings understood their homework and were doing well in school.

“My mom was very busy trying to balance being a mom, providing financially, making sure food was on the table, all of those pieces – when it came to schoolwork, the at-home stuff, she was literally out just grinding, we as in my brother, sister and I, were put in my hands,” he said. “If it was homework that needs to be done, the expectation was ‘get it done,’ and if you don’t know how to do it, connect with Paris and he’s going to support you.”

But it was two different experiences Echoles had as a teenager that convinced him to go into teaching.

One was that in high school, while taking an African American history course, Echoles said he felt the teacher, who was white, did not value and uplift the curriculum in a way that he needed to see as a Black 16 year old. Then, as a senior in high school, an interaction with a third grader at church was what really convinced him to go into teaching.

“At the church, he was telling me all about how he hated his school and felt like no one there understood who he was and could relate to him,” Echoles said. “From there, it dawned on me … I want to be somebody who can have an impact on a system in which students who look like me, come from similar experiences that I come from, have a desire to want to improve not only their life outcomes, but the lives of their families.”

Echoles graduated from Beloit Memorial High School, and received his bachelor’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison and taught in Oconomowoc for a year. He then got his first master’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater after moving home to teach in Beloit as a high school history teacher, and a second master’s from UW-Madison.

From there, he went to Kenosha Unified School District where he served as the Coordinator of Student and Family Engagement and Equity for three years to help improve the academic success of students of color and celebrate their achievements.

In 2015, he then became an assistant principal at MMSD’s LaFollette High School before transitioning into the role of Director of Youth Re-engagement, where he helped pilot the district’s first “micro-school” for 13 Black students and tried to find creative ways to get students who were not engaged with school or had dropped out back on track toward graduation.

“We knew that students who were in the micro school, for some reason or another, were off-track for graduation, so it was very important for us to take the time to learn their stories, and learn who they were, where they want to go, (how) do they see themselves, have them dream big,” he said.

Echoles said part of his leadership style is being compassionate with both students and staff, because you don’t always know from the onset what another person is dealing with, or what struggles they’ve overcome.

“I think oftentimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own story and what you have going on, and the way you see the world and the way you live, and expect other people to do that same thing,” he said. “I work hard, and I surround myself with positive people who encourage me to work on those things, and encourage me to live by these values not just personally, but also professionally.”

Jessica Beem

For Beem, school as a child was a family affair.

As an elementary school student in Belmont, Iowa, Beem said she was lucky enough to go to the school where her father was principal – and her grandmother was her teacher.

“I would say it’s one of my best childhood memories and experiences, other than lunchtime when she’d make me eat my peas,” she said with a laugh. “It was so special that I still remember that.”

Beem’s first experience with teaching came when she was a teenager, after she was asked to help give swimming lessons to students with disabilities because she worked well with them. It was later while getting her bachelor’s degree at University of Northern Iowa that she attempted to go into speech pathology, but felt a calling for elementary education, and specifically special education.

Beem received her master’s degree in special education and early childhood and taught special education, as well as grades Pre-K through sixth grade, before becoming a special education consultant. As a consultant, Beem supported a dozen rural school districts in Iowa, conducting professional development and providing support for families who were struggling to support their children with autism.

“That was an amazing experience,” she said. “(But) I really missed that connection with kids, and families and staff. When you’re serving 12 districts, it’s really hard to feel like you have a home.”

So she went back to school, this time to get her master’s in administration, and then became an assistant principal at an Iowa elementary school before moving to West Middleton Elementary School three years ago.

Beem said building relationships are one of the most vital aspects of school for students and staff, especially because students show different interests and abilities as individuals that she can use to get students more engaged with the curriculum.

“That’s super important to me, to get to know every person as a human being, and listen and learn about each individual’s loves and likes, learn about their strengths and their interests,” she said. “I have always felt that knowing somebody’s interests and strengths … you can use that to your benefit. When I was in a classroom, I always took plenty of time to slow down and know that for every child, because that’s going to pay off in the long run.”

There’s an energy that each student brings to the school and their classrooms that Beem said is what makes being an educator fun.

“That’s what I’m missing during this time right now,” she said. “All educators thrive off of that energy that kids bring.”

Julie Musgrove

One of the reasons Musgrove went into education was because of a couple of her elementary school teachers, who wanted to make sure she succeeded.

Musgrove was adopted from her native country of South Korea when she was 7 by parents who lived in Milton, where she learned to speak English in the district’s English Language Learner program. Musgrove’s kindergarten teacher had moved with her to first grade to make sure she would stay on track as she learned, and a second grade teacher was student-centered and focused on the whole child, she said.

“They just impacted my life,” she said. “This is what I wanted to do for other kids … I knew I was going to be a teacher from the time I was young.”

She got her bachelor’s degree in elementary and physical education at UW-Whitewater before moving to Florida, where she taught as a fourth and fifth grade teacher. While teaching there for four years, she got her master’s in educational leadership at the University of South Florida.

Musgrove’s husband decided that he missed having seasons of the weather, she said, so the couple moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, teaching early childhood alongside a special education teacher.

“I loved it – that was my first experience with early childhood,” she said.

Musgrove and her family then moved back to Milton to be closer to family, and was hired back into the district where she received her K-12 education. It was at Milton where she helped lead the implementation of the 4K program before becoming an associate principal at the intermediate school for grades 4-6 for six years.

While being a behavior interventionist wasn’t considered her title while in Milton, that’s what Musgrove’s job heavily entailed as the associate principal. She led professional development for Milton’s staff on nonviolent crisis intervention each year, and helped create a focus on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and helping find ways to use a student’s strengths to engage them in learning.

“The positive behavior interventions are so important,” she said. “I believe we build on strengths, and from that we can do so much more.

“Students don’t come to school wanting to make poor choices – students come to school wanting to have a great experience,” Musgrove added.

For Musgrove, the foundation of a school is creating and building connections between students and staff that promote positive experiences for not only students and families, but the staff, too.

It’s an aspiration of hers to show students what that kind of school environment looks like.

“I spent a lot of time on making sure we’re creating an environment where everyone is welcome, and everyone is accepted for who they are,” she said. “I want every person who walks into Stoner Prairie to feel like they belong and they are welcomed with open arms.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.