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Ashland High principal receives national award

Jana Carole used to marvel at Ashland High School principal Michelle Zundel’s ability to memorize hundreds of students’ names in less time it takes some people to decorate their new office.

Back when Zundel was in her first week as principal of Walker Elementary, Carole recalls, Zundel grabbed a crossing guard vest and marched out to the parking lot, where she waved kids and cars to-and-fro as she filed away names and faces.

“It’s absolutely true,” Carole said. “She asked the names she didn’t know and in a couple days she knew every child’s name at the school. And if you walk around the high school with her, it’s more than a name at high school, it’s getting what they’re about. I think she does that.”

Zundel’s talent for connecting with her student body was only one of the qualities that helped her gain national recognition recently, as the American Association of School Administrators named Zundel the lone winner of the National Women in School Leadership Award in the central office administrator/principal category.

Zundel, who has worked in the Ashland School District since 1995 and as AHS principal since 2010, accepted the award and a $1,000 cash prize Feb. 27 at the group's National Conference on Education, in San Diego, Calif.

“It was thrilling,” Zundel said. “I’ve been an administrator in the Ashland School District for 20 years and had never attended a national conference, and to have access to some of the top thinkers and leaders across the country who are doing great stuff for students, it was really wonderful.”

Zundel, who received her bachelor’s degree from Brown University and master’s from Harvard University, was nominated by the Ashland Schools Foundation in July, and in October she was named one of two finalists in her category (the other category was for superintendents and assistant superintendents). According to the AASA, the criteria for the awards included “a demonstration of strength in both personal and organizational communication, professionalism and community involvement.”

Ashland Schools Foundation Executive Director Susan Bacon believes Zundel possesses all of those qualities and more.

“I would say she’s a very dynamic leader,” Bacon said. “She’s somebody who welcomes and creates changes and is always looking to make a better learning environment, looking for new ways for students to learn and teachers to teach."

Zundel was nominated by Carole, a screen story analyst for Columbia Pictures and former ASF chairperson who’s experienced Zundel’s impact locally first-hand. Carole said both her children attended schools while Zundel was at the helm, so she was excited for Zundel when the AASA announced its decision.

“I was just thrilled,” Carole said. “I had no idea what would come of it but I knew full well she was very deserving. We moved to Ashland two decades ago specifically because of the public schools ... and to have gotten to know somebody who’s beyond my highest expectations as an administrator, it was completely appropriate that she should win that award.”

When asked what the award meant to her, Zundel was quick to deflect the credit to those around her.

"Nobody accomplishes anything on their own in education," she said. "It is such a collaborative process so, yes, it was validating and an honor to be able to go to San Diego and receive this award. But it speaks to the remarkable work that's being done here by our students, our teachers, the staff and the community of Ashland that supports their youth. I really feel that deeply."

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Ashland High School Principal Michelle Zundel. Courtesy photo