WESTVILLE – Westville Middle-High School Principal Alissa Schnick was born to teach.
While she can't pin down the exact age her love of education took root, judging by her mother’s stories about giving lectures to imaginary students – chalkboard and all – during play, she must have been pretty young, Schnick joked during a chat in her office earlier this month.
For the past 14 years, the students and staff at Westville have benefited from that lifelong passion – which is beginning to turn heads outside the New Durham Township school.
The Indiana Association of School Principals recently honored Schnick as High School Principal of the Year for District II, which includes every school corporation in La Porte, St. Joseph, Elkhart, Starke, Marshall, Kosciusko, Pulaski and Fulton counties. With the distinction, Schnick will attend the annual IASP Fall Professionals Conference in Indianapolis, where she will be in the running for Indiana Principal of the Year.
Schnick – who returned to school in early May after giving birth to her third child, Cash – is the second Blackhawk the IASP has recognized this year. Her administrative professional, Debbie Niec, was the association’s Secretary of the Year. It was Schnick who nominated Niec, so learning that assistant principal Josh Goeringer had offered her name for principal of the year award was “an unexpected surprise,” she said.
The award comes on the heels of distinctions other agencies have bestowed upon Westville Middle-High School over the past couple years, including the Indiana Department of Education’s recent upgrade of the school’s letter grade from a “C” to a “B” for the 2017-18 school year.
“It’s awesome to have such wonderful things happening at the school,” Schnick said. “It’s great for the climate, the culture here.”
According to Schnick, the accomplishments are proof that "even as a small school, you can still make waves.”
It has been at the small school where the teacher-turned-principal has made her mark.
The Chesterton native got her first taste of instruction while in high school, traveling to elementary schools to teach sign language, Schnick said. After graduating from Chesterton High School in 2001, she began studying English at Ball State.
In 2005, she came to Westville for the first time as a student-teacher under middle school English teacher Roberta Albers – “the best mentor I could have possibly had,” Schnick said. The veteran educator helped Schnick quickly make connections with students and families in the small town, including as volleyball and basketball coach, she said.
“I fell in love with the school and the community,” Schnick said.
So much so that after she graduated from college the following year, she turned down a teaching job in Michigan City to continue working at Westville. After spending a year as a speech and physical education instructor, she began teaching high school English while studying for a master’s degree in administration from Indiana University South Bend.
In 2013, Schnick began to split her time between teaching and serving as assistant middle school principal. The following year, the school corporation promoted her to principal.
Over the past five years, Schnick has led the way on many changes at Westville, including the transition from seven- to eight-period days her first year on the job. This past year, the school introduced the Blackhawk Academy, an online learning program, and is currently in the process of rolling out an honors English program.
The Indiana Department of Education has bestowed several honors over those past five years, including placing the school on its Family Friendly School list three years in a row, and giving it a Gold Star School Counseling Award in 2017. The DOE’s recent upgrade of the school’s letter grade has been especially gratifying, Schnick said.
“As you raise your school’s letter grade, you’re raising the bar, raising the standards,” she said. “As we grow, we want to set these goals even higher,” with Schnick setting her sights on a coveted “A” grade.
While the recognition is welcome, what matters most is seeing her students succeed and seize opportunities for their futures, she said, be it in college or trade school. Working at a small school has allowed her to get to know the students very well, both during school hours and at outside events such as the annual Trick or Treat at the Track, or Community Clean-Up Day.
“Building relationships is huge,” Schnick said. “It’s a priority for me and for the staff [to make] our kids feel empowered and important.”
Several of her former students now want to return to the school to work, which is especially humbling, Schnick said.
Though it may be her name on the Principal of the Year award, she's appreciative of her staff and superintendents, who have been receptive to and supportive of her ideas over the years, Schnick said.
“I couldn’t do my job without the people I work with,” she said. “I feel like my job is to support them.”
It’s the relationships with her staff and students that keeps her motivated and energized for whatever comes next, she said.
“It’s a pleasure to come to work every day. It’s fun; it really is. I’m where I should be, I feel like.”