"Make it a great day. Make good choices. Be kind." Words to live by according to Jen Sass, Principal at New Prairie High School.
Sass just finished her third year at the helm of NPHS, where she makes it her mission to help students discover their talents and how best to use them.
"I always told my own kids and now I always tell the kids here, you're gonna have to get up and work every day of your life, so you need to find what gives you joy and make that a career," Sass said.
Sass always knew she wanted to be an educator.
"I was lucky,” she said. “I've never thought I would do anything different."
Before becoming the principal at New Prairie, Sass served as an assistant-principal at Portage High School for four years and principal for two. Before that, she taught at Boston Middle School in La Porte for 23 years. As a teenager, she taught half-days at an elementary school as part of the cadet teacher program.
The first couple of years at New Prairie were full of adjustments, and a few struggles. Sass maintains a leadership style focused on accountability and hands-on involvement. Some changes, like instituting hall passes, felt a little restrictive to students at first.
"When I came here I was the new kid on the block,” Sass said. “I think I was very different than the previous principal, so it was a very rough start here."
Some of the challenging student attitudes persisted into year two, particularly with one student. But as the end of spring grew closer and the student’s post-graduation plans were still unclear, Sass saw an opportunity. She enlisted the help of a counselor and arranged a visit to Eagle Technologies, hoping to give students some positive motivation.
"I've tried really hard to get kids out into the community to see what it's like to work at such-and-such place," she said.
Her efforts paid off in a big way. One student immediately took to the technology support work at Eagle and got a job with them right out of school. Now the student loves the job, the company helps with college tuition, and they are supporting themselves. The student even came back to visit NPHS and thank Sass for her support and encouragement.
"That one really sticks with me," Sass said.
That project lead to the formalization of a new initiative called the Cougar Mentor Program. As freshmen, kids are paired with a teacher mentor who’ll meet with them at least once a week, just to talk and listen, until they graduate.
"These are bright kids. [They] have a lot to offer, but they don't even see their talents," she said. "I feel like we have to inspire them, we have to engage them at all times."
In those early days, Sass saw a lot of negative online comments. Students were not shy in tagging her in their critical tweets, either, which made them hard to ignore. Instead of reacting and taking them personally, Sass again saw a learning opportunity.
"There was just so many negative things that I [saw] come out of social media because kids just don't know or they hide behind it," she said.
She started encouraging social media literacy and awareness. With particularly egregious offenders, she invited them to her office and read their words back to them out loud, wanting them to see the impact of their words up close.
"I'm a human and that hurt my feelings,” Sass would tell them. “And I felt like that kinda started to help."
Now she sees students policing each other, taking responsibility for their environment, and offering unprompted encouragement. It feels like real progress and she’s proud of how far they’ve come.
"I'll hear kids say 'make good choices' to each other," Sass said.