Principal Chad Auten fist-bumps his Mills River Elementary studnets. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
By Pete Zamplas – Mills River Elementary principal Chad Auten was simply told his school assembly Friday morning would have a surprise speaker, and he wondered what was up as Supt. Bo Caldwell took the stage.
Caldwell indicated someone else was the actual speaker, then described the mystery person’s educational career step-by-step to the students and teachers jamming the gymnasium. Hearing his resume recited, Auten caught on he was getting introduced as the speaker to students and teachers.
He grinned as he walked past children to the stage, figuring Caldwell was on hand to honor him as Henderson County Public Schools principal of the year. Caldwell hired him as a teacher in 1998; this is Auten’s 20th year in the local school system.
Auten said “awesome” a dozen times, to describe how it feels to get the honor bestowed by principals of the 23 local public schools, and the school and its extended family. He began by calling in an “awesome honor.”
Supt. Caldwell told The Tribune that the principals choose among their peers since “they know what it takes to do the job” on many levels. “We have 23 great schools because we have 23 great principals.” Principals nominated other principals, and then each chose from finalists on a ballot rather than convening in a meeting. Thus, results could be kept under wraps.
Auten commended these peers. “It’s an awesome group of principals I work with – the best in the state,” Auten said. “So it’s quite an honor to be chosen by them.”
Auten is in his fifth year as Mills River principal. He shared credit. “I’m principal of the year because of the teachers that are here, and the students that are here, and this community,” he told students and teacher. “I love coming to school with you every day.” He later told The Tribune he gets “incredible support,” in “building a (school) family.”
Schools’ Chief Human Resources Officer Scott Rhodes said, “Mr. Auten is a dedicated and passionate leader who loves his students, staff, and community. He has created a school culture where all stakeholders take pride in making Mills River Elementary (as its hashtag states on a gym banner) #ThePlaceToBe.”
Mills River Elementary’s data manager, Nita Owens said Auten “forges a personal relationship with each student, and knows each of their names.” Some noted Auten even opens car doors for students to get out of, each morning. Auten fist-tapped one student after another, as they filed out of the gym. Earlier, students loudly chanted “he’s number one!” after hearing Auten won the award.
On stage, lanky Auten drew chuckles when Dr. Jan King presented him sunglasses, a straw hat and Hawaiian-styled shirt as the “Island Man.” New Asst Supt. for Curriculum Dr. Jan King succeeds retired Kathy Revis.
Auten later explained the inside joke to The Tribune. He said in a meeting of principals a few years ago, he stood firm for a view but “couldn’t sway anyone” to join his side. So another principal at the time, now-retired Mike Thorpe, jested that Auten was on an island in being isolated.
Auten is next up for principal of the year in the local one of eight regions statewide, with that winner contending for the statewide honor next spring.
Leader in Me
This is Auten’s first principal of the year award. It is for the new 2017-18 academic year, and coincides with Mills River initiating Leader in Me work skill development for elementary students. Upward Elementary also began training this summer. They follow Dana and Sugarloaf, to total four local schools. Next year, Atkinson, Edneyville and Fletcher are due to join in, Jan King noted.
Supt. Caldwell said “The Leader in Me program teaches our young children about citizenship, about leadership, organizational skills — skills that will take them throughout their entire lives, to become productive citizens.” They also increase self-esteem, discovering and using their strengths starting in formative years.
Auten told The Tribune that Leader in Me is about “taking charge of your lives — and your success.”
Mills River reflects taking healthy initiatives, in its go-getter slogan on a gym banner that applies to far beyond basketball: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Mills River is in West Henderson’s district, and like West students are Falcons.
Leader in Me principles are mixed into curriculum, and put to practical problem-solving use in projects. For example, students might meet with the principal and teachers to solve problems and figure how and where to improve the school. Children get other students involved, such as via clubs.
The FranklinCovey Institute has run The Leader in Me in more than 3,000 schools across 50 countries since 2009. The basis is Stephen Covey’s book, entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Owens said in the assembly that as “we are learning our ‘seven habits,’ we have no further to look for a role model than Mr. Auten.”
Program tenets include four roles of leadership. Training includes on utilizing instructional videos and inspirational slogans such as “Find Your Voice.” Later “On-site coaching” of teachers with feedback and tactical adjustments comes twice per academic year from FranklinCovey.
Its fee is $70,000 per school, with slight costs beyond that over three years to fully implement it, Henderson County Education Foundation (HCEF) Exec. Dir. Summer Stipe has noted. HCEF gets donors to back the effort.
A prime measure is improved test scores, which helped earn Sugarloaf the program’s highest honor as one of merely five Lighthouse Schools FranklinCovey chose statewide for 2016-17. Sugarloaf’s end-of-grade test scores after year two of The Leader in Me soared 50 percent, officials said, while Dana scores also improved.
“The results have been amazing,” said Peggy Marshall who was Sugarloaf’s principal then. “This program has completely changed the culture here, in our school. It’s had a great impact on our students, our families and our staff members. Our students have gained more confidence and leadership skills. Our parents are more involved. And our staff members are more engaged and empowered.”
Marshall, now Apple Valley Middle principal, was county-wide principal of the year for 2015-16. She is followed by Hendersonville High’s Bobby Wilkins in ‘16-17, and now Chad Auten.
Auten’s leadership helped Mills River get into Leader in Me, officials indicated. Stipe explained that schools are chosen by school administrators for program “readiness” such as Leader in Me “prep work and the school’s vision.”
Chad Auten, an Illinois State alum, started locally as a career and technical education teacher in Apple Valley Middle for six years. His master’s degree is in school administration, from Western Carolina University.
Auten previously led Edneyville for six years. He was assistant principal for three years before that at West, where his wife Shannon Auten is principal. They have two young children — Patrick who is in third grade in Mills River, and first-grader Kaitlyn. The entire family was on hand for Chad’s award.
Shannon and even Patrick knew two days ahead Chad had won, but kept it from them. Shannon said it helped in keeping the secret to be gone attending West sporting events on the two nights before the surprise presentation.