A visionary who loves to explore and evolve
Debra Paradowski was a three-sport athlete in high school and grew up watching the Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoons. She often dreamed about being a female sports reporter, but the influence of her parents, Ken and Judy, steered her down the path of education. Her family and friends told her that she should go into teaching because she was constantly playing “school” as a child. She chose that path, starting her teaching career as a middle level Spanish teacher in the same school district from which she graduated. After transforming the barely operational program into a viable one (with the help of the other language teachers), Paradowski taught two years of high school Spanish and then returned to the middle level as assistant principal for six years. In 2005, she moved to Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, WI, where she’s been the associate principal for 15 years.
While many associate principals’ primary duties concentrate on attendance and discipline, the administration and the school board at Arrowhead have allowed Paradowski to follow her own vision to explore and evolve beyond being a disciplinarian and operations manager to include her passions—school culture and climate, as well as instructional leadership. Her work has reflected a positive culture, and she has dedicated her life to making sure that each student who enters Arrowhead Union High School grows and learns according to their own interests and abilities. She has done this through several programs that she and her team have created.
WINGS for Incoming Students
In a TED Talk by Rita F. Pierson, Paradowski remembers hearing these words: “It’s very difficult for a child to remain focused on the task at hand when they feel like their teacher doesn’t care if they succeed or fail. Aspy and Roebuck examined more than 3,700 hours of classroom instruction and found that ‘students learn more and behave better when they receive high levels of understanding, caring, and genuineness than when they are given low levels of them.’ ” These words have driven Paradowski’s actions as associate principal. She wants to make sure that every first-year student who enters Arrowhead feels safe, understood, and cared for, which is how the school’s WINGS program was conceived. WINGS is a three-half-day program that helps incoming students acclimate to the Arrowhead Way and being a Warhawk. Approximately 97 percent of the incoming freshmen—476 of a class of 492—attended the 2019 WINGS program.
WINGS started with a vision to improve school culture and build a sense of belonging. The inception team began with just Paradowski, guidance counselor Barb Whyte, and another former Arrowhead teacher. “I enjoy being a part of this planning team to create a meaningful, engaging experience for our incoming freshmen,” Paradowki says. “This is where they become a Warhawk.” She trusts her staff enough to allow them to make the big decisions and provides them with the support and guidance they need. The program has grown so popular with the students that they now have Paradowski, a counselor, three teachers, and two support staff to help in the decision making.
Meet and Greet
In addition to being involved in WINGS, Paradowski and Principal Gregg Wieczorek hold a meet-and-greet—in groups of six—with all freshmen throughout their first year at the school. The meetings allow the principal and associate principal to introduce themselves and share a bit about who they are and what they do in and out of school. In turn, the students introduce themselves and talk about their own skills and hobbies. If the freshmen are still not involved with a school club or activity at this point, Paradowski invites them to join one or create one. This past year, the MSU—multicultural student union—club was formed. It helped fill a need for students who were not involved with any other clubs. The current freshman class has 84 percent participation in a club or activity.
Paradowski states, “WINGS and the meet-and-greet establish the foundation that provides a strong and secure learning environment to allow our students to flourish in academia, raise their self-esteem, and make every student in our school equipped to get the most out of their education by feeling valued as an individual and a Warhawk.” Wieczorek believes that Paradowski’s involvement with the freshmen is paramount to their success. “Deb uses the information to get the students more involved. … [One] student indicated an interest in videography, so she had him make promotional videos for the school,” Wieczorek says. “Another freshman, who had his own DJ business, was hired to DJ our dances. Another played bagpipes at a pep rally. When one student showed no interest in any club we offer, Deb met with this student regularly to build a relationship and even went with the student to a few different clubs until the student found one that he enjoyed: our Esports club.” When students feel included, they feel valued. Whey they feel valued, they feel safe. When they feel safe, they learn more. So, Paradowski continues to meet with each freshman to make sure they receive a warm welcome to the school.
SLAM: Students Leaving A Mark
In addition to working with the incoming freshmen, Paradowski helps to hone and strengthen students’ organizational and leadership skills through the SLAM program—a name created by the students that stands for Students Leaving A Mark. In 2018, Paradowski, along with her administrative team, made her vision a reality with 15 students initially involved. Today, just 2½ years later, the group boasts 65 students and two advisers. Paradowski and athletic director Ryan Mangan run the student-centered group to give students a voice and empower them to be engaged and confident learners so that they can make an impact on the school and surrounding community.
Some of the students’ first actions were to add murals to brighten up the hallways, paint the walls in the study halls, post positive messages in the stairwells, renovate the staff lunchroom, and devise ways to recognize student and staff excellence. The students who joined that first year defined themselves as leaders in the school and immediately created norms and expectations for the group. Paradowski is a facilitator—she meets with the students, discusses and helps them think through their plans, and makes sure the ideas are seen through to the end. Then she meets with the student leaders after the plan has been executed to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.
“I have found [that] integrating student voice into our school’s routine has created more opportunities for students to demonstrate their leadership skills and guide our school in the right direction,” Paradowski says. The group strives to promote intellectual, emotional, and social growth along with motivation and resilience to improve the school climate and culture, one voice at a time.
The Arrowhead Way
At the forefront of all these initiatives is the guiding principle of the Arrowhead Way: “a positive, schoolwide systemic approach to meet the holistic needs of all the students at Arrowhead High School.” The Arrowhead Way is not just the name of the program—it is a complete way of thinking. Paradowski elaborates, “As one team, we are committed to students experiencing a collaborative and inspiring learning environment where intellectual, emotional, and social growth, motivation, and resilience are promoted and valued.” The students learn throughout their high school career that being appropriate, respectful, and responsible are the keys to success at Arrowhead and beyond.
Paradowski says that she has been blessed with many formal and informal mentors throughout her journey in life, and she has “always embraced the opportunity to learn from those I have crossed paths with.” She credits her parents, as well as Jerry Anderson—a retired educator—and Chuck Schrader—a skilled millwright worker—who are both close family friends. Both men have mentored her and have bestowed their words of wisdom on her. Additionally, she jokes, “Of course my sister and brother always had words to share about how I should do my job.” But Paradowski has found a mentor in everyone she has come in contact with—friends, teachers, administrators, and staff. She finds that her actions are inspired by others who challenge her to be something bigger than herself. “I believe it was the influence of my mom, and former teachers and coaches like Mr. Lowell Littaritz—along with my own love of learning—that made me passionate about being in the field of education,” Paradowski says.
After the Pandemic
Paradowski points out that historically pandemics have forced society to break away from the past and imagine a new world. Her first objective when she returns to the school building will be to attend to the social-emotional needs of students and staff and get them reconnected to school and each other. “Moving forward, we can’t lose focus on the positive impact it has had on building stronger relationships, strengthening the bonds with families and their kids, and highlighting the value of teachers as they continued to provide support for the parents, provide some semblance of routine for our students, found creative ways to teach meaningful learning experiences, and pulled the communities together,” she says.
She knows that the school recovery from COVID-19 will not happen overnight. In fact, it will be a process that will require thought and planning. But she also knows that planning and addressing the challenges posed is the opportunity to learn. Paradowski knows that relationships and teamwork matter the most in these situations. Through the WINGS, SLAM, meet-and-greet, and Arrowhead Way programs, the school’s relationships have already been established and are well grounded. The teachers and administration are thinking about options to welcome everyone back and unite them again as one team—the Arrowhead team.
Paradowski is reluctant to talk about herself, instead preferring to discuss her students’ and staff’s accomplishments. She believes leadership is a fluid practice and describes herself as a servant leader who puts the care and concern for others first. She is self-aware and knows when to lead and when to follow. Of the programs she initiated, she is quick to point out that she co-created or co-developed each and that she does not work alone. “Whether I create, co-create, or help develop a program, sometimes the most important thing I do is get out of the way,” she says. In any case, all other efforts are student-centered. She uses a listening ear, compassion, and a sense of humor to create strong bonds with her students so they will succeed not only at Arrowhead, but also in the global workforce.
Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.
Sidebar: Meet Debra Paradowski
Debra Paradowski graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a Bachelor of Science in middle/secondary education Spanish. She then received her Master of Arts degree in education and education leadership from Marian University in Indianapolis. She continued her education at Milwaukee-based Cardinal Stritch University, where she took classes in instructional mentoring, coaching and observation strategies, coaching in complex situations, coaching for leaders, and analyzing student work to guide instruction. She used this information to co-teach the professional development course for the staff at Arrowhead on how to motivate the unmotivated; she currently serves on the board at Cardinal Stritch University for the Principal’s Center. In 2014 Paradowski returned to Marian University, where she received licensure as a director of student services and director of curriculum and instruction.
Paradowski has many interests. She coaches volleyball and softball at Arrowhead and maintains an active lifestyle by working out, enjoying the outdoors—hunting, fishing, camping—yoga, biking, participating in triathlons, playing sports, and cheering on her Wisconsin sports teams. She also enjoys reading and spending time with family, friends, and her “fur babies.” She has been a part of Midwest Dachshund Rescue by transporting and training surrendered dogs. “My home is a source of energy and hope, forgiveness, and love,” she says. She treasures time hanging out in her backyard with her dogs and her friends. She always has an open door with a fridge full of food and drink. “After all,” she says, “I am from Wisconsin.”
Sidebar: Students and SLAM
The SLAM program brings together all kinds of students at Arrowhead Union High School. Its members share their insights into the program:
“My favorite memory participating in SLAM was interacting with upperclassmen and seeing their viewpoints on leadership. It was interesting to understand what leadership was while talking to people of many unique abilities.” —Parnia Serjooei
“I have been a part of SLAM for the past year, and it has taught me so much about leadership inside and outside of the school. This club has prepared me in so many ways, like participating in leadership conferences … and just teaching us how to be mentors and leaders to our fellow students.” —Alex Stahl
“My favorite memory is when the SLAM club gave Arrowhead bus drivers thank-you notes, Starbucks gift cards, and candy. It may sound like a small action, but to me, it was a huge opportunity. Too often students forget to thank those who really help us in life, such as teachers, lunch staff, and bus drivers. When giving the bus drivers the thank-you gifts, it was really amazing to see how grateful and happy they were because SLAM members took the time out of their day.” —Lauren Webb