5/31/12 Ready to Ski-'daddle'

Turrentine principal set to call it a career
Turrentine Middle School principal John Swajkoski is retiring after working in education since 1975. The veteran educator has worn a number of different hats in N.C. public schools, including those of English teacher, Spanish teacher, coach and athletic director, in addition to administrator.

Sam Roberts / Times-News

Turrentine Middle School principal John Swajkoski is retiring after working in education since 1975. The veteran educator has worn a number of different hats in N.C. public schools, including those of English teacher, Spanish teacher, coach and athletic director, in addition to administrator.

READY TO ‘SKI’-DADDLE
After 36 years, John Swajkoski leaving ‘on my own terms’
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 5/31/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   Carolyn Christopher has known nine principals during her 23 years working in the office at Turrentine Middle School in Burlington.

   John Swajkoski is one of her favorites.

   “He’s good to people,” she said, “but he’s strict and runs a tight ship. You always know where you stand with him.”    Swajkoski will soon wrap up his years at Turrentine, which make up the last five of his 36 years in education.

   Most know him as “Ski,” “Coach Ski” or “Dr. Ski” — a concession to the challenge of pronouncing his last name.    Christopher said she isn’t the only one who values Swajkoski.

   “Parents will come by and ask for ‘Coach Ski’ … and the kids like him,” perhaps the ultimate endorsement of a middle school principal.

   Swajkoski started his career at Statesville High School, teaching Spanish and coaching football, basketball and other sports. After a brief stint in Ohio while his wife did a graduate assistantship there, he taught Spanish and English and coached at Southern Guilford High School.

   He taught, coached and served as athletic director at Williams High School in Burlington before becoming an assistant principal at Graham High School, where he would later be principal. He has also been principal at Southern Middle School and Woodlawn Middle School.

   Swajkoski said he’s enjoyed his time in education enough to stick around for significantly longer than the 30 years required to retire with full benefits. He also wanted to retire while on the top of his game.

   “Everybody says you know when it’s time,” he said. “I wanted to go out on my own terms.”

   WITH A PROJECTED enrollment of between 960 and 970 students for the 2012-13 academic year, Turrentine is as large as some high schools. That’s meant spending additional time getting to know teachers and students.

   To be an effective principal, Swajkoski said, “You need to know your character and culture” at a school.

   Challenges include helping students from low-income families, those for whom English is not their first language and others who may face barriers to high achievement.

   Money isn’t necessarily the main answer, Swajkoski said, though it can pay for resources such as additional staff members to work with students who need more help with one or more subjects. Turrentine has gotten limited Title One funding — federal money available to schools with a significant number of students getting free or reduced-price lunch — and will get more in 2012-13.

   More broadly, teachers have to get students actively involved in learning. There’s still a place for lecturing, Swajkoski said, but not every day. In the engaged-learning model, he said, the teacher is more of a “coach” who helps students learn to ask questions that develop thinking skills.

   Ron Davis teaches physical education and is Turrentine’s athletic director. He thinks the coach analogy and Swajkoski’s sports background explain part of his success as a principal.

   “Any time you coach, you learn to deal with lots of different kids,” Davis said, as well as parents and other adults.    Megan Lynn, a seventh-grade language arts teacher, is finishing her fourth year at Turrentine. Teachers can approach Swajkoski with out-of-the-box ideas and get a good reception as long as it’s “within reason,” she said.

   Turrentine teachers have involved students in learning and service experiences ranging from candidate forums that help students learn about politics and efforts to help their counterparts in Africa to a museum featuring Greek mythology and history in which students take the lead, performing skits and presenting other information.

   SWAJKOSKI IS KNOWN for his sense of humor. He refers to visits from the Alamance-Burlington School System’s central office as “visits from the big house” and has jokingly warned what might happen if challenges at Turrentine were not overcome.

   “If this continues, I’ll be out on the side of I-85 holding a sign that says, ‘Will work for food,’” he has told the school’s staff.

   Staff members and some of the school’s students poked good-natured fun at Swajkoski last week as part of an extended send-off (currently, his last official day is July 31). One day, some wore sayings associated with him on T-shirts. Other days — including “Sweater-Vest Day” — focused on fashion.

   The prominence of the Swajkoski name in local education isn’t limited to his work.

   His wife, Bea Swajkoski, retired in 2010 from Williams High School, where she spent 30 of her 32 years in education. After first teaching English there, she spent most of her years at Williams working in or heading the guidance department.

   Their son, J.D. Swajkoski, teaches social studies and coaches at Graham Middle School.

   Their daughter, Mary Carol Swajkoski, is getting married in June. She works for Buckner Companies.