By Kevin Kelley
Westlake High School has a tradition to honor each athlete or team that qualifies for the finals of a state athletic championship. It’s called the “state send-off.” In a state send-off, the honoree, accompanied by the school’s cheerleaders and marching band, marches through the school as the rest of the students cheer.
With Principal Tim Freeman leaving to become associate executive director of the Columbus-based Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators, the school thought it appropriate to give him a traditional state send-off on his last day Friday.
The send-off concluded with an assembly in the school’s gymnasium, where Mayor Dennis Clough presented the outgoing principal with a proclamation declaring Feb. 10 Tim Freeman Day in Westlake.
“I always thought it was funny to watch people be uncomfortable during a state send-off,” Freeman told students at the assembly. “And I’ve experienced it. That was a little strange.”
During the assembly, Latin teacher Lisa Patton credited Freeman with bringing a sense of stability and pride to the school when he was appointed principal in the fall of 2006. Freeman trusted teachers to teach, she said.
“Over the last 10 years, he has built up the vision of the high school – brick by brick, teacher by teacher – and now he leaves his monument to stand for the new guard,” she said.
Freeman joked that his office staff would be disappointed at not seeing him cry on his last day. “It’s not going to happen,” he said. “I cried laughing.
“No tears of sadness today. I’m a little sad at leaving. I’m very excited about working with principals around the state. But my heart and my home will always feel like it’s Westlake, Ohio.”
He told the senior class he’d try to attend their class’s major events through the remainder of the year, like prom and graduation. He told them to take care of each other and finish the year strong.
Freeman later told West Life the best part of being principal was working with students.
“The best part of this building is the kids,” he said. “They make you smile every single day.”
The applause students gave Freeman during the state send-off and gym assembly seemed genuine. The formal farewell ceremonies were accentuated by students’ individual goodbyes and posters and notes expressing best wishes.
So what’s the formula for being a high school principal who maintains discipline while also being seen as a “good guy”?
Freeman said it’s all about establishing trust.
“The formula is, if you’re student-centered and trustworthy and honest, and then do it for a while, kids find credibility in that,” Freeman told West Life. “Even unpopular decisions, or decisions that might be disciplinary in nature, done the right way, with the right pattern of consistency, pay dividends.”
Freeman believes the worst high school climates are ones where the principal is unpredictable or moody.
Consistency is a big part of earning trust and respect, he said.
“You convey your expectations and you hold kids accountable, but you do it in a way that’s respectful of them but doesn’t waiver,” he said. “You build that credibility, and it’s all about trust.”
Freeman said some students with whom he developed close relationships were ones who were once in trouble.
Being personally present and visible to teachers and students was a large part of his management style, he said. When he started, he and his two assistant principals set a goal for each to visit 10 classrooms a day.
A smooth transition to new Principal Paul Wilson is anticipated. Most Westlake High students know Wilson from his recent position as principal of Lee Burneson Middle School, which he led since 2010. Wilson received a similar send-off from students
After then-Superintendent James Costanza hired Freeman in 2006, the district hired Wilson as assistant principal at Westlake High on Freeman’s recommendation. Wilson had worked under Freeman at Avon Lake High School.
“I can’t think of another person I’d rather hand it over to than him,” Freeman said of Wilson.