Suwilaawks principal Pam Kawinsky is one of three administrators in Terrace moving back to a teaching position this fall. (Brittany Gervais photo)

‘It shocked everyone’: Suwilaawks parents angry over district’s principal change-up

Families left without answers why their principal is taking a teaching position this fall

Suwilaawks Community School parents want to know why its principal of eight years is moving back to the classroom this fall.

Pam Kawinsky is one of three administrators in Terrace who will return to a teaching position – a school district release posted on its website gave no detail as to the reasons why.

The district named Kawinsky’s replacement as Cassie Hall Elementary’s current vice-principal, Julia Jacobs, effective Aug. 1, and has launched a Canada-wide search to fill vacancies at Skeena Middle School, Cassie Hall, and Mount Elizabeth Middle/Secondary School in Kitimat.

“We all learned [of this] two days ago,” Suwilaawks parent advisory council president Nikki Villeneuve said May 3.

“It shocked everyone. I don’t think it’s reached the kids yet – people are still trying to understand why.”

Villeneuve says Kawinsky created a close family environment where students can take pride in themselves with the help of supportive, creative programs, including breakfast and lunch clubs and activities focused on physical health.

With Indigenous children making up 84 per cent of Suwilaawks’ student population, Kawinsky has also made strides to incorporate First Nations languages and culture into school programming.

Every morning, Kawinsky greets each of the school’s 220 students by name with a ‘hello’ in the Tsimshian language.

“A lot of kids aren’t able to go to the villages and participate but they have that at school – they have First Nations art, language and drumming there. The kids have actually learned how to make cedar hats and they’re able to take home regalia and things like that,” Villeneuve says.

According to information published by the Fraser Institute, even with standardized testing Suwilaawks has made significant improvements. Student average scores rose from 2.7 per cent last year to 4.5 per cent this year, with advancements in Grade 4 writing.

READ MORE: École Mountainview ascends in Fraser Institute elementary schools rankings

Villeneuve also finds it strange Kawinsky can’t talk about the change in her position, considering how involved she normally is with Suwilaawks’ families.

Principals and vice-principals are not unionized and have individual contracts with the school district. Their contracts usually say that should their current assignment change or disappear, with no other suitable administrative position available, they are entitled to return to a teaching job in the district.

Villeneuve doesn’t believe the announced change was Kawinsky’s choice, despite the district saying so.

“She’s great at her job. We would like to know why the board would make a choice like that. I don’t know whether they’ve actually been to our school,” Villeneuve says.

“[Parents] are very upset. Within the last month of this school year… it’s super abrupt. Everyone knows it wouldn’t be her choice to leave.”

Angela Scodane has seen many of her children and foster children go through Suwilaawks. She says Kawinsky “goes above and beyond” for students there. When the family moved further away from the school a couple of years ago, her children were willing to take the bus a bit further to attend Suwilaawks under Kawinsky’s leadership.

“My son and daughter both graduated from Suwilaawks. My youngest is graduating this year… and when we took on foster kids, it was the same thing. Our foster kids are high maintenance kids and she just took them on with open arms – she was really comforting to them.”

One of their foster sons has ADHD and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which can make it difficult for him to socialize with others, Scodane says. Kawinsky stands with him, encourages him and reassures him that he’s going to be okay throughout the day.

“She’s not just their principal – she’s their friend,” Scodane says.

Along with Kawinsky, the current Skeena Middle School principal Phillip Barron and vice-principal Cory Killoran will also be leaving their administrative positions for teaching positions in September.

Last week, around 50 Skeena Middle School students across all grade levels walked out of their classrooms and gathered outside the CMSD82 head office on Kenney St., chanting “save our principals” in protest.

READ MORE: ‘Save our principals’: Terrace students stage walkout at school district over staffing changes

Coast Mountains School District 82 superintendent Katherine McIntosh declined an interview with the Terrace Standard.

In an emailed statement, the district said McIntosh understands parents and students are disappointed with the staffing changes, but they are common to all school districts for a variety of reasons.

“Staffing changes result from a careful consideration of many factors and circumstances which require that the confidentiality and privacy of all staff involved or impacted be respected,” reads the statement.

“You can be assured that the best interests of our students and the school district as a whole guides staffing decisions that are made from time to time.”

The school district is now conducting a Canada-wide search for vacancies left.

School board chair Shar McCrory also released a similar online statement May 3, but Suwilaawks parents and students say there are still many unanswered questions.

“[Are the replacements] going to be involved on a day to day basis like Pam is? Are they going to be able to do what she does?” Scodane asks.

“[Pam] takes the time to know everyone, how their day was. Is this person going to come in and push them aside or want to get to know the kids? Are they going to make them feel at home and want to come to school?”

A meeting at the Kermode Friendship Centre has been organized for May 14 to discuss Pam Kawinsky’s change in position.

“Kermode is holding a meeting to see if we can change the mind of the board and administration,” wrote Cal Albright, Kermode Friendship Society executive director. “We also feel strongly this is not the best decision. We have a productive, collaborative relationship with Suwilaawks.”

Scodane says breaking the news to her son is going to be difficult.

“He just loves going to school and talking to Pam and having breakfast with her every morning – it’s one of the best parts of his day. He’s going to be heartbroken.”

CORRECTION – A printed version of this story misidentified Cindy Sousa as Suwilaawks’ replacement principal. The district named current vice-principal of Cassie Hall Julia Jacobs as Pam Kawinsky’s replacement effective Aug. 1.

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