Ordinarily parents aren’t thrilled to get a call from the principal, especially after school hours heading into a weekend, but Paula Casperson isn’t just any principal.
Casperson, principal of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé since 2014 and a local school district employee for the past 20 years, was named the Region 5 Principal Of The Year for 2022 this week by the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals. Among the many reasons her colleagues singled her out are the updates she provides by phone every Friday as a way of preserving personal contact during lockdowns and other restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really started as a concept of keeping a sense of the community as a community when we were all locked up,” Casperson said during an interview in her office Wednesday.
Praise for the calls and other efforts to persevere during the pandemic was expressed by several members of the Juneau School District Board of Education at their meeting Tuesday night.
“She continues to impress me with her fortitude and her presence in a tumultuous time,” Superintendent Bridget Weiss said. “As we went through the pandemic of the last couple of years Paula was a very steady force. Paula is a great presence and a great solution finder.”
Despite the many accolades, including awards going back a decade, modesty remains among Casperson’s endearing qualities, Board member Will Muldoon said.
“I remember being a senior and even a sophomore, and you were still leading me on the straight and narrow, and I think you are part of the reason I ended up down here,” he said.
Casperson has been the principal at JDHS since 2014, was vice principal for the preceding nine years and was a high school social studies teacher for eight years in Alaska and California.
She has a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a master’s in education from Stanford University. In 2012, the University of Alaska Anchorage awarded her the 2012 William Demmert Leadership Award for significant contributions to the education of Alaska Native youth.
“I loved my time here as a classroom teacher,” Casperson said. But “at some point in my teaching career I decided I could make a (larger) impact in the community. The issue of equity in schools is important to me. I saw myself able to advocate more effectively if I were in an administrative role.”
The duties of being an administrator changed drastically when the pandemic hit, and Casperson credits all of the JDHS staff and her peers throughout the district for the successes that were achieved.
“I think we have worked very hard in the last couple of years to keep students learning and education at the forefront,” she said.
Among her recent efforts with other schools is a collaborative work group to increase dual enrollment and credit opportunities for Juneau School District students at the University of Alaska Southeast.
The highlight this year is “we have had kids in school every day,” Casperson said, adding one of her other primary goals is “to rebuild the concept of Crimson Bear pride.”
At the same time the biggest challenge is “trying to reconnect kids to the sense of community.”
“We still haven’t had a high school dance,” she said. “We still haven’t had a high school assembly.”
While the district is now in its second week of a masking-optional policy and students are making plans for a prom, Casperson isn’t ready to predict things will keep getting closer to normal.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past couple of years it’s not to predict anything when it comes to anything related to a virus,” she said.
Casperson said her longer-term goals are still based on the principles that have motivated her to remain a principal for so long.
“I’m hoping that we continue to be a school that is consistently improving and meeting the needs of our kids as learners,” she said. “I also hope that we continue to be a school that makes the community of Juneau proud. I feel very lucky to be a part of a high quality school where community is the shared value.”
The regional principal of the year awards are based on nominations by “anyone – students, staff, parents, district office staff or principal peers,” according to AASSP. Weiss, who is herself an award-winning administrator, said she nominated Casperson “for so many reasons I didn’t have enough room on my nomination form.”
“Her perspective is always quick big picture — ‘how do we do this together?’” Weiss said. “It is not singular in nature at all.”
Casperson said she was surprised to win the award since “I don’t know that I’m doing much work that my colleagues in Juneau and across Southeast Alaska aren’t doing.” But some board members said they believe she brings special skills to many of the everyday duties.
“You are an amazing communicator,” Board President Elizabeth Siddon told Casperson. “Your ability to talk through contentious or complicated or convoluted or new or changing things to parents, to students, to board meetings to site council meetings is a skill.”
Each AASSP 2022 Regional Principal of The Year is eligible to be the organization’s Alaska Principal of The Year, and all will be honored at the 56th Annual Alaska Principals’ Conference in Anchorage in mid-October.
Meanwhile, the Friday updates from Casperson to parents will continue, even as the impacts of the pandemic wane.
“I thought that would go away, but people seem to listen so still we go,” she said.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at Mark.Sabbatini@juneauempire.com.