The bustle of first lunch period fills the halls of Coventry High School. I’m four years removed from the awkward teen years, but high school memories come rushing back waiting for my meeting with Principal Joseph Blake. I remember a teacher with coffee breath telling me to stop wandering the halls, the science teacher telling my friends and me to stop monkeying around, the cliques huddled by their lockers, and the obnoxious laughter from inside jokes no one else understood.
Most of all, I distinctly remember one friendly face from my time in high school: Mr. Joseph Blake. Principal Blake walks up to me with a friendly elbow tap, instead of his usual firm handshake, due to the Coronavirus outbreak. He towers over me—a gentle giant. At Suffield High School, he received the 2014 Assistant Principal of the Year award, and at Coventry High he added the 2019 Principal of the Year, according to the Connecticut Association of Schools’ website. To do so, Blake surpassed the expectations of a school principal’s job.
“I also make sure that I’m visible. Everybody always knows who the principal is in the building because it’s easy to spot me, not just because I’m big, but because I’m out there.
His Principal of the Year award hangs, shiny and framed, above his office desk. “It’s funny: when I left Suffield I was the assistant principal of the year in Connecticut, I got recommended for this job, and, years later, I’m the principal of the year.” Blake works closely with Dr. David Petrone, superintendent of Coventry Public Schools, to come up with new ideas to improve the students’ experience at Coventry High School. The administration is willing to take risks to figure out what is best for the kids.
Principal Blake is known for his personable ways. His office desk is filled with photos. He believes half of the joy of being a principal is knowing the students. Learning their quirks and characteristics makes all the frustrations of being a principal worthwhile.
“There isn’t schematic for what a principal does on a daily basis. My job is to create structure by making sure the rules are enforced. I also make sure that I’m visible. Everybody always knows who the principal is in the building because it’s easy to spot me, not just because I’m big, but because I’m out there.” Even in his chair, Blake’s stature is elevated. Being friendly with students is the foundation of building a great relationship between students and teachers. “There’s a hundred kids in every graduating class, so when they are graduating, I can usually tell you something about every single kid.” Everybody comes to school with different baggage and inner turmoil. Blake believes it is important to make school a safe haven. He meets with every senior who is in danger of failing to find out what the problem is and how he can help.
Another reason for Blake’s accolades is his introduction of online learning to Coventry High School. Google Classroom in particular, has both prepared students for college (where a similar online program, Blackboard, is used by many institutions) and made the entire school more prepared for the switch to online learning due to the pandemic. Blake knows not every teacher is tech-savvy, so his staff goes through twelve training sessions to learn how to use Google Classroom. Since kids have their own Google Chromebooks, everything can easily move online. This can also be especially handy when students are absent.
As social media has emerged as a teen favorite, Blake’s tech initiative also covers cyberbullying. “One of the biggest differences is, back in the day before cell phones were a thing, if you were being bullied, you went home, and that was it. Now, students take home the bullying. It’s hard to escape it. And that’s something we need to keep in mind when we talk about students’ social-emotional health and how quickly we react to bullying online. We’re going to act quickly,” he says. “We just put in this app that’s put out by the Sandy Hook Promise called ‘Say Something.’ It’s an anonymous reporting app. The kids can put in an anonymous tip to a third party, and then it comes to us—once they validate that the person’s not messing around. Bullying is inevitable in high school; making sure it gets handled immediately is vital to keeping the Coventry community protected.”
Blake and I recall a problem with an app called “Yik Yak” during his time at Suffield High School. Instead of posting positive anonymous notes, students would bully each other. His improved work has avoided a similar problem. Principal Blake was able to turn something that could have been chaotic into something helpful for all students, as it is difficult for students to speak up.
Teens often have a hard time opening up about what’s going on inside their head. Students may be dealing with mental health issues that they do not understand themselves. Blake says, “We’ve had professional development on trauma-informed practices and social-emotional learning involving kids in school, because we know kids that are involved do better in school.” Getting students involved in school activities not only improves their grades but their overall high school experience, which is why Blake has included some mandatory school practices.
In a school that is not diverse racially, but rather economically, the administration believes students should be educated on the issues that arise due to this and other types of diversity. Blake says, “We added a new class to the senior curriculum. Every senior attends a lecture. It’s just like a freshman college class. It’s all contemporary issues. And obviously, diversity is a huge one, as well as international relations and poverty. We also had a conference this year on LGBTQ+, how to create a positive environment for [all students].”
High school is meant to mold students into young adults. With the close-knit culture Coventry High School has created, there is no doubt these students will graduate with confidence. Blake scoots his chair over, right under his Principal of the Year award and smiles from ear to ear. He crosses his hardy hands, his confidence radiating through the room. He is proud of his accomplishments.
Kimberly Rivera is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Photos by Kimberly Rivera