New UHS principal getting out of the office
URBANA — Posted on a file cabinet in the office of new Urbana High School Principal Matthew Stark, you'll find a large photo of Big Bird, of "Sesame Street" fame.
It's actually a photo of Stark wearing the costume at his former school. He promised his students he would if the choir learned the theme song to "Sesame Street" and someone found the costume.
Stark has been known to go all-out to get students excited about something, whether it's raising money for a good cause or dressing up for homecoming week.
"I don't mind embarrassing myself," he said.
And he's not the kind of principal who sits in an office, away from students.
The Urbana school district hired Stark last year, and he started in July. In his previous job, he was the high school principal at Brown County Schools, in Nashville, Ind., and until now, spent his whole career in that district.
Stark succeeds former UHS Principal Laura Taylor, who is now an assistant superintendent in the Champaign schools, and Joe Wiemelt, who spent a year as interim principal and still works in the Urbana school district.
Stark, 44, is clearly a positive person, especially when it comes to talking about his new job, the students and staff at Urbana High School and the community as a whole.
He said when he was researching Urbana prior to taking the job, he saw that it's a school with a strong commitment to its students and staff members.
"When you've been in (the same district) 20 years, you don't move on a whim," Stark said.
At UHS, he wants to take the school "to the next level," starting with figuring out what's in the best interest of each individual student.
That means if a student is college-bound, what can the school do to support him or her? The same thing goes if the student plans to attend community college or a tech school or join the military.
The school should be able to find ways to help each student, he believes.
His second goal is to create a partnership between school and the students' homes.
"We need each other to help kids succeed," he said.
When a child is in elementary school, his or her parents and grandparents and even neighbors show up to see a school performance in which the student might play a tree.
High schoolers should have that same kind of support from the adults in their lives. High school teachers may see 150 students a day, but a parent may have one or two or three kids in high school.
"You are their biggest advocate," he said, and parents should hold students accountable for their success in school. He wants parents to feel comfortable about calling or coming in to the school to talk about their students.
Stark is also believes in giving students independence and power, with limits.
He tells students that the school, its faculty and staff can't do education "to" them; rather, they have to actively participate.
In a world where education seems to want students to conform to certain standards, Stark likes to think of schools more as a place for research and development. Students should find successes and deal with setbacks while expanding their own ideas.
"The kids aren't products," he said.
The idea of allowing for risks and failure while trying new things also benefits teachers, as well, Stark said.
He wants them to feel like they can try new things in their classrooms. He likes the thinking: "Can I be a catalyst to achieve things people didn't even think were possible?"
Stark has a daughter in sixth grade at Urbana Middle School and a son who's a sophomore at Urbana High School. His wife, Amy, is director of conventions for the National Council of Teachers of English, which is headquartered in Urbana.
He likes to travel and read, and is a member of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Urbana.
"I love life," he said.
Stark said he first pursued engineering at Purdue University, where he realized it wasn't what he wanted to do. He always liked history, so decided to become a social studies teacher.
When he student-taught at Frankfort Middle School, he remembers telling his supervising teacher, "I couldn't do anything else. I love this. I love being an educator."
Stark started as a social studies teacher in the Brown County schools in 1992. From March until December of 2002, he was the school's assistant principal, and in January 2003, became the high school principal there, until he left for Urbana in July 2013.
At the beginning of the year, he asked all students to fill out a 3-inch-by-5-inch note card, asking what they liked about the school, what they wanted to see improved and their plans for after high school.
In reviewing those, Stark noticed some students didn't have post-secondary plans, which he wants to address.
About 65 percent of Urbana High School students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and that's a challenge for families, Stark said. It can be hard for parents to connect with their high schoolers if they're working multiple jobs to pay their bills.
Stark has talked to students who want to help their struggling families out, and his response to them: "Get a great education" at UHS, and then have a post-secondary plan so they can help their families more effectively far into the future.
Urbana Superintendent Don Owen said he's been impressed with Stark's leadership and noticed that Stark likes to collaborate with teachers, students and families.
"He's very much a people person," Owen said. "He's very visible, in the classrooms and hallway."
Stark is also in front of the school, greeting students and their families as they arrive, which is something several parents have told Owen they appreciate.
"He's incredibly positive, and you see that rubbing off on teachers and students smiling in the building," Owen said.
UHS senior Lewis Haber said students have noticed how visible Stark is within the school, and have found him to be engaging.
Haber said he's been involved in a new Habitat for Humanity club at the school, and students met with Stark this summer to talk about it.
"He showed great enthusiasm for it," Haber said. "It was very encouraging that he was here and ready to try new things, even though it's his first year. ... I think he's being flexible enough to let students engage themselves at Urbana High School."
Haber said he also thinks Stark is friendly and the fact that he has a son at Urbana doesn't hurt, either.
"I think he's going to be very successful," Haber said. "I think he will be able to be very in tune with what the students think of what he does."
Stark said he believes that people are as happy as they decide to be, he said, and that high school should be fun for students, even as they face tough issues.
"It's an exciting time," he said. "Their whole future is ahead. As an adult, I see everything is still possible for them."