Making the grade: D51’s longest-serving principal calls Scenic home
The thought of going to the principal’s office would scare most children.
Seeing the principal at your door could spark another level of fear.
But for Scenic Elementary students and their families, it’s a welcome — and common — sight.
Scenic Elementary Principal Doug Levinson has made it a tradition to spend the first three days back on the job each July riding his bike to the homes of his students. About 70 percent of the time someone is home when he knocks on the door. He introduces himself to newcomers and greets returning students.
“It’s grounding for me,” Levinson said. “It lets parents know we’re here.”
Levinson has been there for students, parents and staff for the last 23 years. He became Scenic’s principal in 1991, making him the longest-serving principal at any school in District 51.
He keeps his time tucked away in the school office brief, preferring to spend his days walking through Scenic’s open concept classrooms to greet teachers, read with students and check in with support staff. He’s a frequent fixture on the playground and in the parking lot at the start and end of school. His time in the office is so rare, school secretary Janae Hurshman said he asks her if she minds him being there when he is.
“He’s a very visible principal,” Hurshman said. “I came from a school where you never saw the principal to a school where you always see the principal.”
Levinson said his favorite part of the job is seeing kids grow up through all six years of elementary school, although he misses the deeper relationship he could have with students when he was teaching. After graduating from the University of Northern Colorado, Levinson, a Pennsylvania native, began his teaching career at Lincoln Park Elementary in the early 1980s. He spent four years there, then moved to Orchard Avenue for three years, followed by a year at Pomona Elementary before coming to Scenic as the principal.
Levinson has never forgotten what it was like to be a teacher and constantly tells teachers and staff he works for them, not the other way around. He encourages teachers to be their best instead of telling them how to do their job, according to Misty Grim, a Scenic teacher of 14 years. Grim teaches first-grade and attended Scenic as a child.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else with a different kind of principal. He inspires me to do what I know to do,” Grim said.
Scenic paralibrarian Debbie Green first met Levinson when her children were at Scenic. She remains impressed with his ability to keep kids in line by having them stay by his side at recess or put them at ease to soothe attention-seeking tendencies, solve problems like keeping reading aides in the school (thanks to Parent-Teacher Organization support) and connect with students.
“He never loses sight of who his clients are. He finds out what that child needs and he meets it,” Green said.
There was a time when it looked like Levinson’s — and everyone else’s — time at Scenic would end. In the 2011-12 school year, District 51 announced Scenic was a top candidate for closure because of $28.6 million in budget cuts the previous three years and a need to cut $6.7 million more district-wide the following school year. Levinson said he was told the school had a 99 percent chance of closing.
“That was so deflating,” Levinson said, although he added he understood from an outside perspective why the cut was considered. “It was so improbable that we would make it, especially when the mill levy override failed” to pass in the fall of 2011.
Even if Levinson had doubts about the school’s fate, Grim said staff could never tell.
“He didn’t give up. There were times I wanted to give up but he was always hopeful. He gave us glimmers of hope. I needed that,” Grim said.
Some people told Levinson to accept closure as an inevitability. Instead, he attended every forum and every meeting pertaining to the school’s future. The Parent-Teacher Organization rallied around the school and attended school board meetings en masse. More than 100 people, many of them Scenic kids, moms, dads and teachers, packed the March 2012 meeting where school board members finally relented, assuring the crowd Scenic would remain open.
The Scenic community was close before but has grown tighter since the threat of closure arose, Levinson said. While academic accolades like the 2013 Colorado Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award attract some families to the school, Levinson said he believes it’s the school’s communal atmosphere that most helped increase the number of school of choice applications for the school from 60 in 2011 to 133 in 2013. Currently, 40 percent of Scenic’s 282 students are school of choice applicants who live outside the school’s eastern Redlands boundaries.
The school’s culture includes recitation of an ever-present motto — WHBN, Work Hard, Be Nice — and having fourth-graders vote for a new Colorado-based animal to serve as school mascot each year. In 2013-14, it’s the wolverine. The school also has a different Scenic student design a new flag each year to fly outside the front door, a tradition Levinson began in 2009.
Levinson said he’s not sure when he’ll retire. At 58, he’s not in a rush. For now, he enjoys coaching baseball, spending time with his wife and two sons, both Palisade High School students, and patrolling the hallways at Scenic.
“I really thought it would be five years,” he said of his career at Scenic’s helm. “There’s an expectation you should move onto something else and not be stagnant. But the job itself is very dynamic. Every year is different.”