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Phoenix principal lowered barriers, raised expectations

PHOENIX — Back in the day, the high school principal was a guy (almost always a guy) who wore a suit and sat in an office. Telling your parents you had a talk with the principal was likely to be part of an admission of some transgression on your part.

Principals like Jani Hale, who is retiring from Phoenix High School at year's end, have changed the dynamic in a big way. The students relish rather than fear conversations with her.

“She always takes time out of her day to wander around, then communicate with others,” said senior Katelynn Smiecinski. “She always makes sure you are all right. It’s sad to see her go.”

“She’s helped me several times while I have been here,” said senior Quentin Jeans, who is student body treasurer. Hale supported him in dealing with what he described as a tough living situation.

“She’s an amazing person,” said junior Konur Erikson. “She is a loving, caring person. She has a big heart.”

“She’s a very approachable person,” said senior Ember Wolfe. "She looks like she wants to talk to you and not just get things done."

Hale came to Phoenix High in 2003, taking over the helm of a school that had seen five principals come and go over the previous 10 years. She said she found a need to push all kids to do better and to get parents more involved.

“My first year I saw complacency and a bit of lethargy in terms of supporting achievement of some students and embracing progress,” said Hale, who came to Phoenix after being an administrator at South Medford High School.

She leaves a school that just placed among the top tiers of the nation's high schools in a U.S. News and World Reports 2016 analysis. Out of 19,908 schools evaluated, PHS was ranked 2,527, good enough for a silver medal. Ashland High was the only other Rogue Valley School to achieve the status.

Early on, Hale and then-Phoenix Police Chief Bob Kershaw discussed how to make the school and community positive places for students. She asked for a school resource officer, and Kershaw found a grant to support one.

A community team later flew to Denver for training, and the Safe School Interagency group that emerged still meets today. It includes elected officials, police and fire personnel, clergymen, counselors and others.

“You have everyone at the same table and you talk about trusting kids or other issues,” said Hale. A recent fatal shooting in Phoenix and suicide have been discussed lately.

School board member Rick Nagel, chairman when Hale was hired, was one of those who went to Denver.

“As a person, she has sensitivity and feelings toward people, particularly kids,” said Nagel. "She’s a very good thinker and very creative. She also follows what kids do after they graduate."

To increase attendance by parents at an annual, student-led conference, Hale made their presence a requirement for graduation. The school board backed her on the policy, and attendance is now nearly 100 percent.

At her first senior awards ceremony, where scholarship awards are announced, one Hispanic student was recognized, Hale said. In the most recent ceremony, 30 percent of the recipients were Hispanic.

“I believe you give kids opportunities,” said Hale. “You create a culture where school is cool.”

Hispanics and other non-native speakers were identified as English language learners and put in “sheltered” classes separated from the rest of the student population when Hale arrived. Now student groups mix freely in the classroom.

Hale’s suggestion early in her tenure that Phoenix High undertake advance placement classes where students can earn college credit was met with, "Why?" she said. Last year 33 percent of students enrolled in AP classes and 83 percent of seniors graduated on time. Hispanic and white students now graduate at the same rate.

Hale was in the Medford School District as a English teacher and assistant principal for 19 years before taking the principal job at Phoenix. In retirement she plans to travel more to visit daughters and grandchildren in Eugene and on the East Coast. She may also take a writing class and do some writing, a discipline in which she says she'll be happy to be the student instead of the educator.

Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Jani Hale, who is retiring as Phoenix High School principal this year, talks with students at the school. Photo by George Rubaloff