During his four years as principal of Orange County High School, Kelly Guempel often wore a casual OCHS shirt to work and helped raise school spirit with his roaring “We are … OC!” chant at pep rallies.
His successor, Wendell Green, offers a contrast in style.
On the job about six months, Green, 48, typically dresses in a natty suit and tie, with a gold Hornet pin on his lapel. Although more self-contained than the exuberant Guempel, he has no problem making his presence known.
The former special education teacher and football coach describes himself as a combination of extrovert and introvert: “I’m not a person that seeks attention, but I do feel like I’m a natural leader. And if something needs to be said, I'm not afraid to say it.”
During an interview last week in his office, it quickly became clear that Green’s success as a teacher, coach and principal has its origins in Miami, Fla., where he was born and raised.
His father worked for a cement plant and his mother was a pre-school teacher; many of his aunts were teachers. The second youngest of five children, he loved sports and enjoyed a decorated athletic career at Miami Southridge High School.
With quiet pride, he said he’s a member of his high school alma mater’s rarified “Thousand-Pound Club,” because he successfully lifted a total of 1,000 pounds in three different exercises. Green also was district champion in the shot put during his senior year, the only year he competed on his school’s track team. He was an offensive guard and a captain of the football team as well as a wrestler. In addition to playing sports, he was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
His high school had “a very big reputation, not just in Miami but throughout the state, as a very good high school with a very good athletic program,” he said. Green looked up to his principal, Dr. Fred Rogers, the first African-American principal he got to know.
“He was very accessible to the students; he supported all the events no matter what it was. He carried himself very professionally, and I recall him saying that our senior class was his favorite class. So that made a huge impression on me.”
For all of his love of sports, the teenaged Green made time to work a variety of part-time jobs. From age 15 on, he worked for convenience stores, a landscaping firm and the local Winn-Dixie supermarket.
Those early work experiences instilled an egalitarian spirit in him: “I don’t look down upon any other staff member regardless of what their job is, because I’ve done those jobs, and I know that we all work as a team. Everyone’s role is important in our mission here at Orange County High School.”
Happy times at Glenville State College
When it came time for college, Green enrolled at Glenville State College in Glenville, W.Va., on a football scholarship. Initially, it was a “culture shock,” as he left Miami behind for rural West Virginia.
“It only had one traffic light in the town,” he said of Glenville—and that is still the case. “But I quickly saw it as a tight-knit family environment, and they took me in as their own. I grew to really enjoy my college experience there.”
During his senior year, his football team played in the national championship game for its division. Though not the winner of that game, Green said Glenville beat a powerhouse Ohio team during post-season play that had future NFL players on its roster.
Green majored in behavioral science, which included classes in psychology and sociology, and minored in criminal justice. He knew he wanted to work with adolescents, based on his encouraging experiences with his own teachers and coaches, but he hadn’t yet decided on a teaching career.
Orange County: “Where everything started for me”
After graduation, he became a social worker and then worked as director of a group home in Florida. In 1999, he moved to Charlottesville and worked in Fairfax for an affiliate of his Florida employer.
The long commute became too much. He changed careers and became a special education teacher at Orange County High School. During his first stint at OCHS, from 2001 to 2004, he earned his teaching license and completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Virginia.
“I loved my experience,” he said of those early years in Orange. “It’s where I got my beginning experiences as an educator, where I began coaching—where, you know, everything started for me.”
He started out as a volunteer helping Jesse Lohr with OCHS’s junior varsity football team. He later coached football at Prospect Heights Middle School and then, with Eugene Williams, coached the high school’s JV team.
Career advancement took him to Charlottesville High School and then Albemarle High School. At both schools, he was a special education teacher and football coach.
He taught and coached at Albemarle for 12 years. While there, he earned an administration and supervision endorsement from UVa and took on supervisory roles that helped prepare him for his current position as principal of OCHS.
He said he felt “reassured” when he returned to OCHS as its new principal. He saw a lot of familiar faces and felt at ease in an environment where teachers and administrators are “putting students first” and preparing them for life after graduation. He likes the family atmosphere at the school where he said everybody knows each other and many people are kin to each other.
He is delighted that OCHS students are generally courteous and accepting of their peers, including those with disabilities. While there have been some incidents of disrespectful behavior, he said he has dealt with those on an individual basis.
“When visitors come to our school, they always compliment our students. They always say that they’re well-behaved,” he said. “Our students are polite, so they make it a pleasure to come in to work every day.”
At the beginning of the school year, he said he told students to get involved in a school sport, club or extracurricular activity. “Usually the kids that don’t like school haven’t found the thing that they can connect with.”
Improving student safety and classroom instruction
Green has made a couple of key changes at the school. Students who arrive early, well before school begins, must report to the cafeteria. Previously, they were allowed to walk around the building in unsupervised areas. Green said he made the change out of concern for the students’ safety.
He also has tweaked the way teachers are evaluated. Instead of having one administrator observe a teacher in the classroom, there are now two, and they use software that allows them to provide teachers with a quick assessment of basic matters, such as whether they have posted their “learning and success criteria” in their classrooms. He said administrators also talk to students privately to gain insights into teachers’ performances.
When he arrived, Green inherited the problem of chronic absenteeism among the approximately 1,500 students at OCHS. Attendance is now a state accreditation factor, so Green needed to devise a plan of action quickly. He said his office sends letters to students with three unexcused or unverified absences. Parents are contacted when a child has five verified absences and told to put together an attendance plan.
“If those absences get to 10 days, then the parents are required to come in to have a meeting. And then if there’s noncompliance, once that meeting is held, then we have the ability, through our social workers, to take those parents to court—if there's just negligence as far as getting those students to school.”
Low writing scores on the SOL exam are another problem area. Green said students struggling with the exam meet twice a week with their English teachers to improve their writing skills.
“Wendell is doing an incredible job”
Green said he enjoys spending his free time with his fiancé and his three sons and going to sporting events. But in the midst of a busy first year, he is focused on his job and working long hours. His dedication is earning him praise from the central office.
“He believes every student has the ability to succeed. This is visible through his work to expand opportunities and offerings for students, his desire to implement equitable services and student involvement throughout the school, and through his instructional expectations for his staff,” said Renee Honaker, director of secondary education. “His reflective leadership and attention to detail are qualities that set him apart. We are fortunate to have him leading our high school, and I value him as a colleague. Wendell is doing an incredible job.”