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Weledeh's 'Outstanding' principal
Simone Gessler named among Canada's top principals

Candace Thomson
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 10, 2014

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE
From a group of 13,000 principals nationwide, only 40 were good enough to be named to the list of Canada's top principals and one of them is a Yellowknifer.

NNSL photo/graphic

Simone Gessler, principal of Weledeh Catholic School, was chosen as one of 40 principals across Canada to be named to the Canada's Outstanding Principals list for 2014. Gessler's work in improving the school's literacy, health and wellness over her 15-year career with the district is what won her the award. - Candace Thomson/NNSL photo

Canada's Outstanding Principals of 2014 -- given by a charity called The Learning Partnership (TLP) -- is awarded to 40 Canadian principals nominated by their staff, community and district and chosen through an extensive selection process.

The awards are set to be presented Feb. 25 at a ceremony in Toronto.

Akela Peoples, CEO and president of TLP, told Yellowknifer Tuesday why Gessler was selected.

"She's in a school that has 400 inner-city students, and one of the areas she decided to focus on was improving students' literacy skills," Peoples said. "The fact that in her school, she has 70 per cent reading at or above grade level is absolutely an outstanding accomplishment."

Aside from the honour of winning, Gessler has also been invited to attend a leadership training program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, where she will have the opportunity to learns more about leadership and management practices from various education leaders and business executives.

"I think it's going to be a great opportunity to talk to other people in education," Gessler said. "It really gives you a broad perspective on different strategies and leadership models which is always helpful."

Literacy on an individual basis

The literacy program at Weledeh assesses what level of reading students are at on an individual basis and helps each child to reach that next level. Aside from that program, the school also has an active anti-bullying school wellness strategy called Think Pink, which promotes standing up for fellow students and being positive.

"We know that some of our students come in with challenges," Gessler said. "We have students from one end of the spectrum to the other, but we work really hard to make this a safe and welcoming place, like a family environment."

Gessler arrived in Yellowknife in 1998 after graduating with a Bachelor of Education from the University of Saskatchewan. At that time, Weledeh had 200 students and 25 staff members.

"We had low literacy, low attendance and it was a very old building," she said.

Since then, the school has doubled in size, with approximately 400 students and 50 staff members now filling its halls. On top of that, 100 per cent of students are reported to have improved their literacy skills.

In university, Gessler was trained to be a high school teacher, but her first job at Weledeh was with Grade 1 students.

"The first week, they were so cute. Then I realized they really were little beasts," she said, laughing. "I loved them, but Grade 1 made me realize that what real teaching is everyone should teach Grade 1 to see the progress they make throughout the year."

Gessler taught Grade 1 for three years before moving to Grade 8. From there, she moved on to being the school's assistant principal, splitting her time with teaching.

When Gessler returned to Weledeh after having her youngest daughter in 2010, she became the school's principal.

"The transition from teaching to administration was exciting but difficult because you have your classroom where you have your own community and family. You go to dealing more with adults than students," Gessler said. "And some days, there are just times you want to go and hang out with the kids because that's what energizes you."

Taking on the role of principal was where Gessler excelled, creating the programs that have brought Weledeh such recognition. While she enjoys working with teachers and parents, Gessler said she has seen her fair share of stressful days.

"It's not always the most glamorous job being the principal in lots of different ways. Sometimes, you're dealing with disgruntled parents, disgruntled staff, disgruntled and defiant kids, kids that are in the office for a reason they've been sent there," Gessler said. "So there are days when you go home at the end of the day and think 'Man, did I do anything today?'"

"On the other hand, you have those days where you see kids are having a fantastic day, they come in and give you a hug, or you have parents who send emails saying teachers are doing a fantastic job."

Much has changed at Weledeh in the past 15 years, but Gessler and her team of staff aren't finished yet.

"I'd just like to see us moving forward and addressing what comes at us," Gessler said. "It all comes down to creating independent and efficient learners and making sure we're meeting all the needs of the students so that they can learn."

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