JEFFERSON — Two decades ago, the Jefferson Rotary Club invested in the future by providing a scholarship to a promising young man named Nick Skretta.
Tom Monogue, a Rotarian who was part of the scholarship committee that chose Skretta for that award, said that in his two-decades-plus with the club, he never had experienced a better scholarship interview.
“He just blew us away,” Monogue exclaimed.
It seems the Rotary Club’s confidence in Skretta was well-placed, as the student leader has returned to his home community and climbed through the ranks of the local education system, touching the lives of many students along the way.
Skretta has called Jefferson his hometown since he was in the second grade.
A graduate of Jefferson High School and president of the Class of 2000, Skretta was named a Student Rotarian as a high-schooler and had the honor of being the only person to receive a Jefferson Rotary Club scholarship four years in a row. (Later, the program changed so that Rotary Club scholarships only went to graduating seniors.)
After graduation from college, Skretta returned to his home community and became a science teacher at Jefferson Middle School, a position in which he served for 11 years. From there, he moved on to become principal of Sullivan Elementary School for three years.
This fall he took over the principalship of Jefferson Middle School.
“He’s the only person I’ve hired three times,” said Mark Rollefson, Jefferson schools superintendent and a Rotarian. “I’m really proud of him.”
Skretta addressed the Jefferson Rotary Club Wednesday, sharing his educational philosophy and thoughts on promoting a positive school culture, which is one area he is focusing on in his new position.
The Jefferson Middle School principal began his speech with a famous quote complaining about the impudence of modern youth.
“The children now love luxury,” the quote read. “They have bad manners (and) contempt for authority. They show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households ...”
He asked Rotarians who originally said that, then revealed the quote to have originated with Socrates some 2,500 years ago.
Skretta said middle-schoolers are going through some of the biggest social, emotional and developmental changes in their lives, all while they are being asked to take on a heavier academic burden.
Youth this age frequently will make mistakes and bad choices, but slip-ups need not define the course they follow for the rest of their lives, he said.
The principal said he likes to communicate to students that people’s first attempt rarely is their best one; that they can expect to make mistakes, and that history shows the biggest successes happen long after people’s first attempts.
Skretta seems himself as a coach and a guide for young people, fostering trust and communication — rather than taking a stern disciplinarian stance.
He said young people need caring adults to interact with them and to encourage them as they build not only on their academic knowledge but also their social and emotional skills.
“We are all still in the process of becoming,” Skretta said, urging young people and adults alike to focus on what they want to be in the future rather than what they’ve done in the past.
Skretta compared his view on school culture to the ideals the Rotary Club upholds.
The Rotary Club’s four-way test, which is supposed to guide Rotarians’ actions in their personal and professional lives, asks: “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”
Business people need to examine their own actions in light of how those actions reflect on them as professionals, Skretta said.
In his educational career, he has tried to practice a similar philosophy, one he now is employing as he helps to guide school culture at Jefferson Middle School in a positive direction, with the collaboration of other staff members.
“Leaders influence culture,” Skretta said. “Culture produces behavior. And behavior produces results.”
He sees his role as principal as one of bringing people together as they work toward common goals.
That goes for the students, who need to learn how to distinguish a true problem from an unfortunate circumstance to move past.
That also goes for the teachers, whom he is encouraging to work cooperatively on school goals and district-wide initiatives.
“Leading is learning,” Skretta said, delineating his own role not as an authoritarian but as a facilitator who can learn from others and incorporate their wisdom and experience into his own practices.
He said he encourages the entire Jefferson Middle School community to practice gratitude.
At the end of his presentation, Skretta took questions from the Jefferson Rotarians and their guests.
Edwin Bos of Fort Atkinson, who serves as the governor for the whole local Rotary district, asked Skretta about Jefferson Middle School’s policy on student use of cell phones, noting that the Fort Atkinson Middle School recently changed its cell phone policy, stating that from starting bell to ending bell, student cell phones are to be kept in lockers.
Skretta said this is a policy Jefferson Middle School has employed for many years. Jefferson High School has a similar, but slightly more relaxed, policy, he said, which allows students to use cell phones during lunch and between classes but requires them to be off and out-of-sight during classes.
Monogue asked about the biggest challenges Skretta faces in his role as principal.
Skretta responded that it is sad to learn about some of the things students are facing in their lives that not always are apparent on the surface.
He said it is his responsibility — in conjunction with other staff members — to make sure that the needed resources and supports are available not only for these students but also for their families.
Megs Lunn, a visiting Rotarian from the Philippines, asked about how Jefferson Middle School defined and addressed bullying, saying this is an issue schools in her country are trying to get a better handle on.
Skretta said that Jefferson Middle School has a whole process in place. Some instances turn out to be more personal conflicts that students need to address and move beyond. Other conflicts do qualify as full-scale bullying, which can come in many forms.
When bullying is reported, the school has the responsibility to interview all of the students involved, to help students distinguish between personal conflicts and actual bullying, and to take action if the instance is determined to be a serious one.
Other steps can include involving the school counselor and referrals to the principal (himself) or Dean of Students Dan Wilharm.
In addition, the school employs an organized curriculum that addresses bullying and lets students know that bullying — whether verbal, physical or online — is not OK in any situation.
Skretta does encourage students to report instances of bullying they witness or experience, saying, “The sooner we can find out, the sooner we can help make it better.”
Finally, he noted that the pupil services team in the Jefferson school district works to assure that there is a really consistent approach to bullying at every school.
Rotary President Deb McCool-Cloute said it must be a challenge for today’s educators to keep up with the changing social media climate.
Skretta agreed that this was a challenge in schools today, as social media not only influences students’ interests and behavior, but also how they learn.
Asked what changes had been instituted since he took over the principalship this fall, Skretta said that the school did not make a lot of big changes, but it did change a lot of small things.
His overall push has been to try to focus on staff strengths, to do a better job dividing tasks to work toward goals by breaking them down into achievable action steps.
The top aims for the school remain enhancing student learning, improving student behaviors, employing effective interventions and building connections within the community.