Both share a background in sports and coaching and seek to bring a ‘positive culture’ for students and staff
Watching the new administrative team together at Cloverdale High School, you’d think the two men had worked together for years rather than months. Maybe it’s because new principal Chris Meredith and vice principal Steve Stewart share a background as athletes and coaches. Maybe it’s because they both have a passion for education and a vision for what it can do. Maybe it’s that they just get along like old friends, one of those instant connections that comes along once in a while. But whatever the reason, Cloverdale schools superintendent Jeremy Decker knew that’s exactly what he was looking for.
“That was very important to me, that my leadership team had a relationship that was beyond just sitting next to each other in their offices,” Decker said. “When I was looking at who I wanted to hire, from my perspective, I wanted two people who could co-exist and work well together.”
Although the two men are getting on like a house afire, at first glance you wouldn’t expect such a close bond. Meredith is younger, and came to education in something of a roundabout way. A Sonoma County native, he is an alumnus of both Rancho Cotati High School and Santa Rosa Junior College where he played football. He transferred to Redlands University, where he also played on the football team and majored in business, until an interaction with a young person changed his pathway.
After tutoring throughout college, he became a private tutor for a seventh grade girl with cerebral palsy following an accident. “She had been hit by a drunk driver in the third grade. So cognitively, she was just like us but the injury crushed her motor skills. It was so humbling and so eye opening to the things we take for granted each day,” he said.
During his time with her in the classroom, he became friendly with a young English teacher at her school; he started to consider that business was not what he really wanted to do. After talking to the teacher and his football coach about how they ended up on their respective paths, he entered the teaching credential program at Sonoma State University at the age of 23.
He was an in-demand substitute at Piner High School while he finished his credential, and was also the assistant, and eventual head football coach. He also coached football at the SRJC and took a position with Ridgway High School in Santa Rosa. He went back to school for a Master’s Degree with an eye towards becoming a tenure track professor at the community college level. That’s when another shift in focus struck and he moved towards administration. Most recently he has been the assistant principal at Roseland University Prep.
“It’s funny because my principal at Piner, Janet Olsen, who was really my springboard in my career, told me in her office when I was a rookie that I was going to be an administrator one day, and I was like ‘no way, I want to teach and coach for 30 years.’
“When I made the decision to leave teaching and coaching and pursue administration, my goal was to effect change in a much bigger way,” he continued. “So obviously, getting my feet wet as an assistant principal was a great experience but my ultimate goal was to be a principal someday.”
Stewart, on the other hand, is a Cloverdale native in every sense of the word. He attended all three Cloverdale schools as a child, and was a part of the 1985 championship basketball team. He’s been a teacher at CUSD for 23 years, and was a coach of multiple sports from 1989 until 2015. Like Meredith, administration had not been on his radar.
“I thought when I got into teaching that I would teach for 30 years and retire as a teacher,” Stewart said. “The change for me came when I retired from coaching in 2015 and got more involved in the leadership team and different committees and that opened my eyes. It became obvious to me that was my path was to go into administration. I know Jeremy had a conversation with me early on, ‘Have you ever thought about being an administrator?’ and I said no.”
“He shut me down pretty good,” Decker said with a laugh.
“I did, right away, it was quick,” agreed Stewart. “But I think through Jeremy’s leadership and others encouraging me, it became part of my thought process, so I said let’s give it a shot. I was fortunate enough to get an interview here and receive the job offer.”
Decker knew both men were bringing a lot to the table. “What pulled me towards Chris was his ability to work with people,” he said. “It really comes across whenever you speak with him, and I think that one of the really important aspects — that I don’t want to say we were missing at the high school, but we were still really trying to work towards — was to have our leadership with our teachers all going in the same direction at the same time. When met Chris I thought this is a guy who I think can pull that off.
“And with Steve, it was community. One of the things that Steve Stewart has in spades is his ability to work with people and his connections to this community, which in turn helps us know what is valued from the community in our school,” Decker continued. “That’s something that we hadn’t had, because you can’t necessarily have that with administration that comes from outside of the area. They can’t know all the different ins and outs. Steve really knows those ins and outs and he’s a strong leader.”
Decker also cited both men’s strong background in sports as another valuable asset to a school with such a strong athletic tradition. In addition, Meredith’s experience as the principal of a Maker Camp in Santa Rosa was also another item of interest for Decker, as the high school is getting ready to launch its new maker space. Additionally, in an interesting twist, the two men hired each other — Stewart was on the committee to hire the new principal before he himself had considered the vice principal position, and, once hired, Meredith helped select his vice principal.
“It became obvious to me in meeting Chris that we had similar backgrounds and the more we talked the more we had that shared philosophy of work ethic and including everyone in decision making,” Stewart said. “So I felt like we bonded from day one and we spent a lot of time since outside of school talking about everything from education to life and kids and marriages, everything. We’re on the same page coming into this school year.”
“And it think it was obvious after we did out first round of interviews, (that) Steve stood out in that process with his personality. He had the ability to gravitate towards people and people gravitate towards him and I could just see it as we went through that process,” Meredith said. “I thought, ‘OK, not only does his personality and experience feel like it meshes with mine, but how much can I learn from Steve Stewart?’ What an asset he is to this school and has been for 20 years. I think one thing that’s important to do when you come into a community is to learn and embrace the community and immerse yourself and Steve helped me do that. Along the way we’ve had some laughs and some great conversations. We’re going to enjoy working together and we both bring a lot to the table that’s really unique and hard to replicate in these circumstances.”
Among other activities, the two men have spent much of the spring and summer attending CHS games and meeting the community. Now as the school year looms, their focus is turning to the August 10 orientation day known as “Round Up” and readying the school and themselves for the year ahead.
“It’s a tradition here in Cloverdale, so we want to take what’s been done and give it some flare,” Meredith said. “We want to make it fun for everybody and start the year off on a really positive note.”
That positivity is the main overarching goal for both men, and Decker with the hopes that this will allow for bigger changes in coming years.
“I’m a relationship person,” Meredith said. “I’m looking forward to getting to know people, I genuinely care about the people that I’m working with, students and faculty alike. I think what’s really important for Steve and I this first year, is to reestablish the positive culture on campus and really utilize staff and implement more of an inclusive decision making process. This is a ‘we’ thing and no one role trumps another. I think the implementation and the instructional improvements, those things are going to come but our focus for the first year is to recreate the positive culture.”
“Some of the challenges that I wouldn’t say they have to address in year one but just start to think about, our A to G completion rate has dropped significantly over the past couple of years and our (standardized test) scores for math at the high school are quite a bit lower that the county average,” Decker said. “Is that something I want these guys to address year one? Absolutely not. But, do I want them to work with teachers and start looking at data and moving forward to figure out the best ways to address these things? Absolutely.”
“I’m looking forward to making sure that we plant the seed and do things more progressively so things are successful in the long run,” Meredith said.