'A wonderful match': Wilton HS associate principal takes the reins at Shepaug Valley

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
Don Schels

Don Schels

Don Schels

WASHINGTON — A good listener is one of the best qualities a person can have in any position — especially in a leadership role, according to Donald Schels, who will be the new principal of Shepaug Valley School.

“I truly believe, the first thing you have to do when you go to a new school is get to know the culture and the climate in that building, and listen to colleagues, students, and parents,” said Schels, a Newtown resident.

Schels is replacing Principal Kim Gallo, who is retiring June 30 after 12 years in that role. Schels is currently associate principal at Wilton High School, having previously served as assistant principal and social studies teacher at the school. He also previously taught social studies Danbury High School.

In his new position, Schels said equal doses of confidence and humility are essential before proposing any changes — “confidence that they know I’m experienced and ready for this and prepared to motivate and support people, but also humility in that I don’t know everything. I need to get to know the lay of the land and learn from the expertise of the people who know the building before I really come up with the kind of plan or vision of the building.”

Learning approaches

While at Wilton High School, Schels helped introduce Yale’s RULER system, an emotional intelligent system that helps identify uncomfortable feelings and develop coping skills for them.

“If you’re a student who’s having a certain mood or a certain feeling and it’s getting in the way of your learning, teachers can help students diagnose it and then help them come up with a response,” Schels said.

This tool can help students develop proactive strategies to handle feelings that can be otherwise debilitating, he added.

At Wilton, Schels was also on a team that developed PADI, an initiative where students learn through authentic performances rather than traditional tests.

As an example, instead of taking a true-false quiz, students would design a science experiment, play a concerto, or build a monument to show they’ve mastered a skill.

This type of learning helps students have more passion and engagement in what they’re doing, according to Schels.

There are many opportunities at Shepaug for which Schels said he’s excited about getting involved — one of which is class variety. He referenced the school’s auto shop, wood shop, metal working and welding shop, and florist and planetarium shop.

“There should be a greater respect in the United States for other outlets for student learning,” he said. “It’s the sense that you’re going to let kids work on projects that go beyond the normal conventional sense of school,” he said. “When you see investment in wood shops, in metal and auto shops, you’re seeing the realization that you can make a renaissance person in a lot of different ways and we should be trying to make renaissance people who are comprised of a lot of different skills.”

Looking past COVID

When students return to school in the fall, Schels said he plans to evaluate closely where they stand.

“For me, the game is to take a look at the learners we have in front of us in September and figure out where they are socially and emotionally, what’s the impact of what they’ve been through with COVID, and how are we going to meet all their needs going forward,” he said.

For the majority of students, Schels said in-school learning is best, but added he’s open to considering other kinds of instruction.

“Some kids, depending upon their situation, could benefit from distance learning,” he said, adding he’s also “not adverse to studying the benefits of some students taking some online coursework because that’s a part of the world now.”

A father of two, Schels interests include playing trumpet, cooking, and jogging along local scenic trails.

Megan Bennett, superintendent of Region School District 12 said Schels has demonstrated strong leadership throughout his career.

“His ability to unite a school community, push for academic excellence, and support the social emotional needs of staff and students will enhance and enrich Shepaug Valley School,” Bennett said. “Don’s personality and vision are a wonderful match for Shepaug. We look forward to Don joining the Shepaug team on July 1.”

Schels thanks the community and Shepaug for the trust they’ve put in him.

“I take that as the highest responsibility to earn that trust,” he said. “If they are going to entrust me with their teachers and their kids their facility then I’m going to make it my business to earn that trust. I’m always willing to discuss and listen and learn.”

sfox@milfordmirror.com