WELLSBORO — High School Principal Jeremy Byrd is preparing for the reopening of a school year that will probably be unlike any in history.
Sitting behind a desk covered in class schedules and papers, his office gives hints to the man who works there. A copy of the “History of Wellsboro” sits to one side, while a zen garden and a pencil holder bearing the words “Work hard and be kind to people” face visitors. A North Carolina State pennant and a Wellsboro sports letter decorate the wall, while a photo of a late 19th century bowling team looks down from above the computer.
In 2019-20, Byrd began working as assistant principal at Wellsboro Area High School. This year, he’s the principal. Working here almost seemed predestined.
It happened when he and his wife, Lindsey, were visiting her parents in Mountaintop, near Scranton. Byrd, who taught in North Carolina for 16 years, said they were planning to relocate to Pennsylvania in 2020. While visiting last July, he decided to apply for some open positions as a way to introduce himself.
Believing Wellsboro was closer to Mountaintop than it is, he drove two hours and turned onto Main Street.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a gem of a town.’ It’s a cool looking place. The downtown is buzzing with people all around.”
Returning to Mountaintop after the interview, the couple received a call telling Byrd he had made it to the second round of interviews. They pulled into a Walmart to buy khakis and a polo shirt as he hadn’t brought a second set of interview clothes. At the end of the interview, he received a job offer.
Byrd and his wife talked about it and decided to accept. They drove back to Wellsboro a third and fourth day to look at houses. Returning to North Carolina, they packed their household in 10 days and were back in Wellsboro 10 days before the start of school.
“I knew (previous high school principal) Emily Ostrom Graham was leaving shortly after I was hired,” said Byrd. Graham was on maternity leave until October, then was taking a job as principal of the elementary and high schools in Liberty.
Initially, he, administrators and the board thought to fill the position, not realizing the challenge of recruiting in mid-school year. To provide support, Elementary Principal Steve Adams served double duty as acting high school principal, while Middle School Principal Rob Kreger and high school head teacher Todd Outman provided support.
“Up to that point, everything was going great,” Byrd said. “I started thinking if this is what a principal looks like, if they have another round of interviews, maybe I’ll toss my hat in the ring.”
And then the pandemic struck and schools closed. As the faculty adapted to the change in education, Byrd was struck by the community support.
It had been apparent from the start when all the athletes in fall sports, along with parents, attended the Swarm the Hive event; when people worked together to attend a football game and chorus concert scheduled for the same night; the banners and photos of athletes in the store windows.
“People were always reaching out and asking to help,” Byrd said. “With the shutdown, people were willing to help with meals, make masks. Even when no one knew what to do, the support was still there.”
It continued throughout the pandemic, culminating with the graduation experience and senior parade through Wellsboro.
“The kids rallied around the idea that this will be our graduation story and it’s going to be different and it’s going to be memorable,” he said.
Looking forward, education will be different this year as schools work to follow CDC guidelines and educate students, he said. Lessons learned this past spring will be applied and integrated into this year’s instructional plan.
“We learned a lot about how to do online instruction,” he said. “The more we do that, the better we will do that. It’s the same with students; they will become more efficient with online education and also with email.”
Byrd hopes to use his and the faculty’s knowledge and experiences from the past year to build on what the district does. Flexibility will be key.
“Are we teaching the way that students learn? It goes above and beyond us lecturing,” he said. “I think this past year woke all of us up.”
As principal, Byrd believes his role is to serve as an instructional leader and build consensus among teachers, the board, students and parents on the direction of education.
“It never hurts us to continue to develop,” he said.