By Willa Vigneault and Sophia McCarron
Nearly 800 foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and screaming students and teachers helped to introduce Sara Dingledy, the regional high school’s new principal, to the fall sports season during a recent pep rally held in the gym.
Ms. Dingledy–also known as Ms. D–said, “It’s really important that the sports games aren’t only attended by the parents of the students playing. They’re a community event. I think having spirit and ownership of that is really important.”
The rally, organized as a collaboration between the administration and the Student Council, featured introductions of all the fall sports teams, performances by the cheerleaders, and competitions that pitted grade against grade.
Early in the school year, many students seemed concerned about things they thought they saw growing out of the chimney atop the building’s rumor mill. Some heard that the new principal was going to have all cell phone signals jammed at the school between 8 am and 2 pm. Others believed she was going to make everyone wear purple and white uniforms, outlaw facial hair, make all male students wear dress shirts and ties. There were other facts that turned out to be non-facts, too.
In fact, students are noticing and enjoying Ms. Dingledy’s openness and accessibility. Early in the school day, for example, she typically likes to walk around the hallways, stopping to talk with students and visiting classrooms in order to learn more about the school community. Ms. D. said, “There will always be rumors, but my big thing is enforcing policies that are already on the books, or else no one will take seriously the new ones that you’re trying to develop and apply.”
Ms. Dingledy’s interest in education began, in part, when she was a college student studying anthropology. The subject inspired her interest in and curiosity about the ways institutions or structures affect the behavior of a person or a community. She said, “I think I became interested in city schools because in the absence of a family structure at home, schools pick up a lot of that work. So I have always been interested in the work that schools could do to help students develop confidence and build communities.”
Her interest in social structures and how they impact young people continued to grow especially after learning about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, China, where a number of student protesters were killed by the government. For the rest of her first year in college, she kept a poster of the event on her dorm wall. The poster captures a moment when a student stood in front of a tank in an attempt to stop it. “Some of my friends thought I was being a little nerdy, but I kept the inspiring poster on the wall.”
Many people look back on their time in high school with a little shudder. Aside from the fashion decisions that don’t pass the test of time, being a teenager can come with insecurities and periods of general awkwardness. Ms. Dingledy seems to understand this. She said, “There’s sometimes an unkindness in high school. It usually begins to end by junior year, but especially in the first two years, it’s like a zero-sum game. It’s as if you have more by making other people have less, which can manifest itself cruelly at times.”
She plans to work on having the ninth and tenth graders in coming years spend more time working together and meeting as many people in their grades as they can. She said, “I don’t want people to go through a miserable experience to become who they are.”
Ms. Dingledy is open about the fact that her high school experience was not great. She said, “I didn’t love high school. I didn’t have a great high school experience. I wasn’t myself while I was there.
But, after high school, she found traveling was a way to help her grow and manage her fears. Travelling afforded her opportunities to manage herself, to figure out how to get from one point to another. “It’s like the thrill of diving out of an airplane,” she said. “There was something about travel that was thrilling to me. I learned that I could actually manage a situation I wasn’t comfortable in. I feel like that’s where I discovered the most about myself and about the world is Those moments in time where I was scared were the moments when I discovered the most about myself and about the world.”
Ms. Dingledy hopes to build upon what already exists at the high school to create a strong sense of community within the school, and to use the Martha’s Vineyard community to help. “What’s great about the Vineyard is that there are so many students who have passions and this community allows them to plug in to those passions. But I always worry about the students who either never develop that passion early on or have become jaded, disengaged, and frustrated.”
Ms. Dingledy understands what going through high school is like if you haven’t found your passion, and she is striving to create as many activities as possible for students to learn to engage in, thereby creating a sense of community: “ In high school I didn’t have a passion and I think that’s why I didn’t love high school. I think a lot about how to honor the students who have found their passions without building a school around them and ignoring the others. One of my goals is to make seniors feel like they are both ready and sad to be going.”