Thursday, January 22, 2015

Back on Campus: Principal Will Leach leads the new early college high school

By Paul Nowell

Will Leach had no compelling need to move on from his job as principal at Butler High School, where during his tenure significant progress was made in student performance and other key academic measures.

That is, until an entirely new position opened up on the campus of UNC Charlotte, where Leach had earned his master’s degree in school administration in 2000. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was advertising for the job of principal of a new early college high school on the UNC Charlotte campus, with plans to open in fall 2014. Operating as a district-wide “magnet” school, the new facility would focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, with an emphasis on energy.

Alumnus Will Leach, principal of on-campus high school
“When I found out about the new job, the first thing I did was do some research on the early college concept. I decided to apply for it because it meant being on the cutting edge of public education,” Leach said during an interview in his office in the school. “It also meant coming back to UNC Charlotte.”

The first of its kind for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Charlotte Engineering Early College began classes on Aug. 25, 2014, with an inaugural class of 100 ninth-graders from across Mecklenburg County. The students will spend three years on high school courses followed by two more years of college course work at no charge. Program leaders envision the school as a blueprint for the future of STEM education in the region, state and perhaps the nation.

For Leach, it was an entirely new challenge.

“I went from being a manager of a large staff of faculty to becoming someone who has the chance to know a lot about each student,” he said. “I know every student by name, and my staff and I have a good handle on their progress and their needs.”

To be ready to open for the 2014 academic year, Leach worked closely with Michele Howard, former dean of students at UNC Charlotte and the director of the Early College Program. They were directly involved in the selection of the faculty and staff. Leach also got to know the parents of his students, mingling with them at several orientation sessions prior to the opening.

“It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been good work,” he said. “We have a lot of control over how we plan our curriculum and how we implement it. To be candid, we are still defining just what success is in this kind of learning environment. I’ve been preaching that to my staff from the beginning, and more than once I have asked them, ‘Are you comfortable with the fact that you are building this ship while it is still flying?’”

While there have been challenges in the first few months of the new high school, Leach remains unflappable and poised. He gives a lot of credit to his professors at UNC Charlotte, who prepared him for his career.
Leach at the helm of Engineering Early College High School

“When I was getting my master’s, I participated in a principal fellows program that gave me a lot of theoretical and practical training,” he said. “I also spent a year in an internship position, working in a public school. From there, I went on to become assistant principal at Carmel Middle School. My first job as principal was at Alexander Graham Middle, followed by four years as the principal at Butler.”

And he’s open-minded enough to know he is still being schooled.

“I have the opportunity to see a very different side of education,” he said. “It’s been a real eye opener from my vantage point to see what I need to do to collaborate. How do I give feedback, and how do I get feedback? It takes a lot of interpersonal skills, and this is something we want to include in the curriculum. In 10 or 15 years, we hope many of them (the students) are successful engineers. But they will need to know how to interact with each other in the real world.”

As for returning to UNC Charlotte, Leach said he is constantly amazed to see all the changes on campus since he was a graduate student.

“I feel a lot more school spirit than I did when I was here in the late 1990s,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s only because of the new football team, but I see a lot of improvement. I’m not sure the average Charlotte resident knows what a quality institution they have in this University.”

Paul Nowell is media relations manager in the Office of Public Relations.

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