Carmel High School Principal John Williams will retire this week. The 61-year old Williams has been an educator for 40 years. For the past 14 years, Williams led the state's biggest and one of its top-performing public high schools.
During Williams' tenure, enrollment has grown by more than 1,000 students to this year's official count of 5,000 in grade 9-12. The school is rated an A by the state and has maintained a graduation rate of at least 96 percent during the past five years. Though Williams is reluctant to take credit for the school's success, instead he says it's built upon past school leaders and staff.
Williams took a walk with WFYI's Eric Weddle around the suburban school recently, where he talked about how his views on education and connecting with students.
Graduation for Carmel seniors is May 25, 2017. Williams’ replacement will be named the before the start of the 2017-18 school year.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
WFYI News: So right now this is the changing period?
Williams: Yes this is our passing period. They're 10 minutes long and this is the only time when a school is 5,000 kids all kind of moving around. I usually stay down here and say 'Hi' to the kids.
One of the things you talked about, is, how do we go about making sure kids are connected? You don't have to know every kid's name or how many brothers or sisters they have or those kind of details to care about them. You can stand here and have a smile on your face and say 'Good morning' and wish them a good day and shake their hand and kind of notice if they're happy or sad. And that conveys, 'We care about you, we're here for you.' This is what our job is: to take care of you academically and socially, emotionally.
WFYI News: What do you say is one of the biggest changes you've seen in students and student culture?
Williams: You know I think there have been a couple of things. The first of it, in a positive way, is I think kids are so much more sophisticated and service-oriented than-than I ever was and probably when I first started teaching. So I applaud our kids. This is a wonderful generation.
WFYI News: You recently had the controversy with the pro-life student poster in the cafeteria. Do you think that is an outgrowth of that -- students are more engaged, they want to take more role in their beliefs and in social activism?
Williams: Yeah, absolutely. ... One of the things that, as I talked earlier, we try to encourage our kids to get involved. And you can't encourage them to get involved and then try to limit their involvement. So, you know, that whole issue I think was very important to our school as we thought about what are the limits of free speech and expression within a school. And it is good for all of us. My goal has always been to give high school students the greatest range of freedom that you possibly can and still run your school.
WFYI News: In the past eight years there's been a lot of changes in the politics and education policy in the state: standards have changed, testing has changed, accountability has changed. How does that impact you and then filter down?
Williams: Sometimes if it's changed that's deep rooted in research and well-thought out consensus, then that's a good change. But if it's this, which-way-the-winds-blowing change -- that's frustrating. Obviously, we spend a tremendous amount of time testing. And I certainly understand the need to test. But there's, you know, there's a challenge with the balance of it when you basically for the month of May disrupt what you're doing in your school so that you can test.
WFYI News: Looking back at your 14 years here at this school, what would you say is the legacy you are leaving behind or what's the fingerprint you put on this school?
Williams: I hope, you know, my legacy or what I've left behind is that we are kid centered. And it's not what we do, it's how we do it. And I know that kid-centered thing is kind of a 'duh' for people. But I don't think it really is. If you really are, it impacts what you do. And so I hope what people remember is that: I cared about this school; I cared about the kids and the staff. And that we did everything we could to serve our kids and be fair to the folks who work here.