A New Leader at the Helm For the firSt time since 2006, DHS Has a new principal; Melanie Nowak describes how her love working with students led her to dhs

"First, think. Second, dream. Third believe. And finally, dare.” Those were Walt Disney’s words, and that’s exactly what Melanie Nowak has done.

Knowing she has wanted to become a teacher at such an early age, Nowak worked her way up the educational ladder and is now the Principal at Dexter High School.

“I knew from a very young age that this is what I wanted to do,” Nowak said. Even in elementary school, playing house and school those kind of things, I was always the teacher. My across-the-street neighbor was a teacher and I remember being excited to help her grade papers. I know that I always wanted to work with students. In high school, I tutored. It was just very natural for me. Being with students is my best part of the day... I see you in the hallway, high fives, casual conversations. These kind of things excite me. This is why I am here. If I could spend 100% of my day with the students, oh, man, best job ever.”

Last year, Crain’s Detroit Business reported educator retirement was up 44% in Michigan; that number includes teachers, superintendents, and principals.

During an exclusive interview with The Squall, Nowak explained why she wasn’t among the group leaving the educational field and why she targeted Dexter High School.

“I did not apply anywhere else this past year; Dexter is the place to be for many reasons,” said Nowak, who came to dexter after a short stint as an administrator in Farmington Hills. “In Dexter, we have a learner profile. Our thing this year is kindness and empathy, so we are working towards that, not just core classes. It’s great when you pass those classes and learn those standards, but we need to do more than just learn math, English, science, social studies and the arts. We need to learn how to do more than that, how to be good humans, and how to function after we graduate from high school. We need to be able to sit across the table from each other and have this conversation.
“So how do we build these communication skills? How do we become good humans? How do we become good citizens? How do we become good humans with the kindness and empathy piece? And here at Dexter, we have a learner profile that is really heading in that direction. We are still focusing on academics; yes, we still want to be a high-achieving high school, but we also see the importance of a holistic child which means every aspect of you, not just certain compartments or subject matters. I might be great at math but if I cannot communicate that, then what does that do?”

The ‘holistic’ child approach focuses on academic intelligence, spiritual intelligence, emotional intelligence and social intelligence. For years, many students have said Dexter has struggled finding a balance between all four.

Nowak has taught English and mathematics, but most of her recent experience has seen her administer S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) and CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs.

In recent years, DCS has relied on the South and West Washtenaw Consortium (SWWC) for CTE programs. The only CTE program Dexter offers that is included in the SWWC is Graph X; the majority of CTE classes are at Saline High School. Many students said they’re pushed away from the career-oriented programs knowing it involves going to a different school for a portion of your day.

Nowak would like to see more CTE classes at DHS. The void of those classes, students said, is one of DHS’s weak spots.

“We are active towards that in the next two years with the hope of adding four more different CTE programs here on our campus,” she said. “I can’t say them right now because they are not set in stone, but yes, we are working towards that. We need to expand our CTE programs because we need our students here at Dexter High School to see the importance of those programs and not say ‘I don’t want to take this class because it is at Saline,’ or ‘I have to take the bus over to Chelsea.’”

Dexter does have a S.T.E.A.M. concept called Dexter Spark.

“Programs like Spark that are centered around activity-based learning and expediential learning, We need to do some of that here, too,” Nowak said. It’s a work in progress. Are we going to change from a somewhat traditional high school to a big program like that off the bat? No, but can we start to work in some different ELO activities? Yes. ELO means Extended Learning Activities, so you could have an internship with a company in town or in the area learning to do what you want to do after you graduate, get credit, and possibly get paid. It’s experiential learning. Learning just doesn’t happen within classroom walls.”

No matter what future changes happen at DHS, Nowak said she will always keep students at the center of any decision.

“Whenever I make a decision, I go back to is this student centered?” she said. “Every decision that comes out of this office will have that filter of ‘is this student centered?’ If the answer is yes, then go ahead; if it is not, then it goes back because we need to revise it.”

The Visibility Factor

Nowak is mainly near the main entrance before school, after school, and will occasionally spend time in the cafeteria during lunch to greet students and chat with them about how their day is going.

Some students noted it was different seeing the principal so visible throughout the day.

“I want students and staff to feel comfortable with who I am,” she said. “Right now, I am trying to be with the student populated areas.”

The ultimate goal, Nowak said, is that students will feel comfortable around her regardless of the circumstances. That goal includes changing the perception of going to the principal’s office.

“In just these first couple weeks, there have been students in the office, or in the hallways. A lot of what I have been doing the last couple weeks, instead of going into classrooms, has been walking the hallways, finding lost freshman, and people who don’t know where to go,” she said. “Teachers might not see me, but I am in the hallway finding students because this is a big building.”

Leading and leadership is something Nowak wants to emphasize at DHS. During her time at Ida Public Schools, Nowak was a new teacher mentor. Now, the roles are reversed a bit as Nowak has other county principals that act as mentors to her.

“I do have go-to people in a couple different ways,” she said. “In the county we have a principals group where all the principals in the entire county have text threads and meetings every month where we talked through different items…“We kinda give each other advice on what to do. This is like our county agreement. There is some mentorship there... I have a pretty good educational network of superintendents and principals that I regularly communicate with for advice.”

Yes, She’s Tall

Nowak is close to 6-foot-3. She did have the opportunity to play sports in college, but she decided to do mentorship work in dormitories.

“[Being an RA] was a perfect fit for me, and then I got so busy with it that I became the senior resident RA, so I was head of the whole dormitory so there wasn’t time for [playing sports] anymore. It went beautifully for what my calling was. I mean, I still play softball, still play basketball, but my knees aren’t nearly as healthy as they used to be.”

Moving All-In

Ms. Nowak not only came to Dexter to take the principal job, but she also moved to Dexter with her family. When she got the job, she knew this is where she wanted to live in addition to work.

“Last night, my six-year-old son had his first homework assignment; He’s a first grader over at Anchor,” she said. “His first homework assignment was to name three strong emotion memories. The first one was our trip to Petoskey from this summer. He had a lot of fun. Number two was moving to Dexter. I said, ‘Ok buddy, tell me about it.’ He’s just so happy and his eyes light up and he talks about Mr. Bill our next-door neighbor. He’s like ‘I love Mr. Bill. Can we have popsicles with Mr. Bill?’ They would take popsicles to Mr. Bill every day. He’s 86 years old. The boys just love him and gravitate towards him. Our other next-door neighbors are wonderful people, too. It has been so great. What a good experience.

“Was [moving] tough? Yeah, it was tough, selling the house that I have lived in for the last seven years. It’s a lot of work selling, packing, and a lot of stress and I don’t regret it for a second.”

And, when Nowak says she’s all-in, she means it. Outside of school activities typically involve both her and her kids coming back to the high school in some fashion.

“Usually, after the school day is done, I go pick up my boys and then we come back here for a sporting event because there is always something going on,” Nowak said. “Whether it’s field hockey - field hockey has been so fun to watch - or tennis or soccer or volleyball, there’s been so many cool things to experience. We have been at something almost every single night.”

She might not be spending 100% of her day with students, but it’s pretty close.


Photos by Georgia Fletcher