Charlottesville High School was getting ready to start last school year with a lot of new faces: two assistant principals, an athletic director and a principal that was hired after a months-long nationwide search.
But one week before the 1,200 students entered through the doors for the first day of school, Aaron Bissonnette abruptly resigned as principal citing unspecified “personal matters.”
“It was definitely the strangest beginning of the school year that I have ever had,” said longtime teacher Scott Mace.
Shortly after the resignation was announced, Jill Dahl, who had been hired in June as assistant principal, was asked by Superintendent Rosa Atkins to move a few offices down the hall and take over the head job.
Dahl, 42, had never been a head principal and it was her first job in a high school, but she did not hesitate when she was asked to take the job.
“I feel like it was either I’m ready or I’m not ready,” Dahl said. “I don’t feel like with a leadership role there’s a lot of in between; either you’re ready for it or not.”
The First Year
Dahl, who is the first female principal at CHS, was a middle school teacher and coordinator for 12 years in Florida before becoming assistant principal at Clark Elementary School for two years, and eventually assistant principal at CHS.
Dahl said the first few weeks of school were pretty much a blur, but because of support from staff they went relatively smoothly.
“It was definitely a collective effort last year. The staff came together and were extremely supportive,” Dahl said. “People were extremely patient.”
But she admits the learning curve was steep and she is still making up for lost time.
“Every day was new,” Dahl said. “I did not know what to expect because I had not been through it…and you’re trying to make up and plan for lost time while still trying to make sure that you are planned out.”
Some of the things she was forced to learn during the school year were how master scheduling worked, how many credits students needed to graduate and how to work at a high school.
“It’s more about learning the needs of the students,” Dahl said. “Learning just about all the different events and resources that take place in high school that don’t happen at the middle and elementary level.”
Dahl said she was excited to be at a school with a very diverse student body. Over eight percent of the students are international, more than 60 percent of students are minorities and over 40 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
“I knew that it was a diverse population and that was something that was exciting to me,” Dahl said. “That is the environment in which I have always worked and so I was excited to come back to that.”
Dahl also said she can relate to many of the students at CHS who are trying to go on to college but face some obstacles.
Dahl was two years into college when she realized she did not have enough money to finish school. The realization resulted in her dropping out and joining the Navy.
“I went into the military because I just couldn’t see myself moving home at 20,” Dahl said with a laugh. “I definitely believe my experience in the military helped shaped me as a leader.”
Dahl was a beneficiary of the GI Bill and received her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida before becoming a middle school teacher and AVID coordinator.
AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, provides academic support and tools for students that might not have background knowledge or experiences to help them prepare for college.
Dahl, a first-generation college student, was also part of the AVID program’s higher education offerings when she went through college.
“I’m just a huge supporter [and] believer in AVID,” Dahl said. “I think it allows me to have a great deal of empathy. I think I’m a living example of hard work and determination, which is what AVID is, it can get you something.”
After she served in the AVID coordinator position, she moved to Charlottesville where her husband is from, and first worked at Clark Elementary School.
Gertrude Ivory, Charlottesville’s Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, said Dahl had expressed interest in moving to the high school and so when the principal position opened up, she said Dahl was the perfect person to take on the job.
“We could see that she was a rising star,” Ivory said. “We dealt with first year principals before, we were pretty confident that she could handle it.”
Dahl did face some challenges at CHS when she started. While the number of referrals and suspensions had dramatically dropped over the past few years under former principal Thomas Taylor, the graduation rate also declined over 6 percent in 2013 and the dropout rate rose from 6.2 to 10.2 percent.
Dahl said they have responded to the drop in numbers by offering tutoring and remediation earlier in the year, and Saturday make-up days for students that can’t stay after school because of other commitments including jobs or afterschool sports.
“We’re looking at taking a more proactive approach with students who might be showing signs of not being on track or struggling in certain areas,” Dahl said.
And according to Dahl, the unofficial numbers so far show increases in the graduation rate this year.
Mace, who teaches U.S. History, said teachers’ hearts immediately went out to Dahl when she was named principal with so little time to prepare for the challenging position.
“It was a really, really tough situation for everyone involved and I think Jill did a great job of rising to the challenge,” Mace said. “Jill has been the consummate professional, she has been really responsive to teachers needs, very student focused and she has been everything that we would have hoped for in a principal.”
Parent Teacher Organization President Lisa Drake also said the transition was smooth and she has been pleased with her involvement.
“From my standpoint it seemed fairly seamless with Jill coming on board,” Drake said. “She was incredibly approachable, and positive, and excited and embracing of whatever the PTO could and would be doing.”
Dahl, who is the mother of two sons, said she also tried to keep calm in the school and maintain a good relationship with students.
“Something that I heard consistently was that the kids knew there were clear and consistent expectations,” Dahl said. “I feel like I kind of took on this mom mentality with some of the kids because they knew I could give them the ‘look’ or I just had to make myself present.”
Four weeks before students refill the halls inside CHS, Dahl is at work with her administrative team, which now includes another new assistant principal. And while a full summer may seem luxurious compared to last year’s shortened preparation time, it stills goes by quickly.
“I’m amazed at how much work there is going into it, which even amazes me more that we pretty much accomplished this in a weekend last year,” Dahl said.
But the large white board that hangs in Dahl’s spacious office and that Dahl calls the “brain dump” has more words than white space on it. One of the ideas on the board that Dahl is pushing for this year is to create more school pride among students and staff.
“CHS is such a unique place. It’s so diverse and there are so many amazing components to it,” Dahl said. “We have many places where there is great pride about this program or that program… and those are all important and they all need to be celebrated, but I also want to see our students be proud of just being a CHS Black Knight, and really defining what that means.”
Increasing school spirit can be a challenge but Dahl has some specific ideas including team building among students and staff, grade level activities, bringing back pep rallies, developing mentorships between upper and lowerclassmen and enhancing freshmen orientation during the summer.
CHS has now had three principals and one interim principal over the past seven years and when asked whether she plans on staying, Dahl’s answer seemed pretty confident.
“I hope so. I hope so,” Dahl said. “I don’t see what would take me from here. I feel like I’m really well supported. The people I work with are amazing and you can’t always say that in the workplace. So as long as they’re willing to have me, I’m here.”