Waiting for change

Santa Ynez Valley High School still hasn’t found a new principal since controversies caused its last to resign

Photo courtesy of Charley Hrehor
STILL HEALING: The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District has been searching for a new principal since Michael Niehoff’s departure last spring, which came shortly after community backlash against crosswalks that were painted in rainbow colors during an anti-bullying week at the school.

Charley Hrehor has had three principals in her four years at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School. 

“I can hardly believe it either,” the high school senior said about the changing leadership. “I don’t know the exact reasons why our former principals have chosen not to come back, but from what I’ve witnessed, it would be really hard to be a principal where there’s a lot of division in the community and people use the school to push their own views and that division.” 

click to enlarge Waiting for change
Cover photo courtesy of Charley Hrehor
LOOKING FOR SUPPORT: After some parents and community members protested rainbow-painted crosswalks at Santa Ynez Valley High School last year, the principal resigned and the district has yet to hire a replacement.

Last year’s principal, Michael Niehoff, said he left after a year in the position because certain members of the community asserted their political views onto the school, making it difficult for him to do his work. He told the Sun in a previous interview that he was putting out fires on a weekly basis. He ultimately decided to resign after receiving pushback from adults for allowing students to paint a crosswalk with a rainbow pattern for an anti-bullying and inclusion week at school.

Parents and adults in the community claimed that the rainbow-painted crosswalk brought political ideologies that had no place on campus. While most students supported the crosswalks, the school painted the crosswalks back to white earlier than planned because of the pushback. 

Hrehor, a co-president of the school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA), said it was hard to see Niehoff leave because he supported the students in a way that she hadn’t seen before.

“Having Mr. Niehoff last year, he made personal connections with the students and he really tried to develop relationships,” Hrehor said. “After having that, that’s our set expectations for someone new. Not having that in a person [will not] be the same.”

The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District—which includes Santa Ynez Valley Union and Refugio High School—is still searching for someone to fill the position permanently. The district has filled two permanent vice principal positions and brought on Mitch Torina as an interim principal—who will be on board until December. While the school environment has improved and things have quieted down since last year’s uproar, Hrehor added, students feel like things are up in the air while they wait for new leadership.

“With it being my last year on the GSA, I wanted to push for bigger projects, which makes it tough when we don’t have a solid administration we can go through,” Hrehor said. “It’s difficult when the person in charge is changing all the time. It’s hard to develop a relationship with a person who’s ultimately in charge of the students when it’s a different person every year.”

Hrehor said she was nervous going back to the GSA and to school after everything that unfolded last year, but at the same time she said she felt more motivation to continue her work and efforts to make a more inclusive space at school. Despite the high school being in an in-between stage, Hrehor, faculty, and parents hope that the district can find someone who will meet the needs of students and take the school in a positive direction. 

“I think the biggest thing I’m looking for is someone putting the students first,” Hrehor said. “I’m just hoping that the school begins to really listen to what the students have to say because I think the students have great ideas, and if they were listened to … it would be better overall.”

Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District Superintendent Andrew Schwab told the Sun via email that the district is working closely with a search firm to identify and interview candidates and looks forward to communicating with the school community “as soon as we have news to share,” he said. 

“We extend our gratitude to Mitch Torina for stepping in as interim principal to provide leadership at Santa Ynez High School as we continue to search for our next principal,” Schwab said in his email. 

Torina worked in education for 25 years before retiring in 2018 as assistant superintendent of human resources for Santa Barbara Unified School District, Schwab said. Before that, he worked as an assistant superintendent for student services, assistant principal, and counselor at various sites across Santa Barbara Unified. 

Torina was out of the office and unavailable for further comment before the Sun’s deadline. 

The district also hired Jasmine Day as vice principal after she worked as dean of student engagement at the Los Berros Visual and Performing Arts Academy in Lompoc. She holds one of the two permanent vice principal positions at Santa Ynez High that the district filled, and she’s been helping oversee the day-to-day operations at the school, Day told the Sun in an email. 

“It’s a challenging and rewarding position, and no single day is ever the same. In some ways I feel like I’ve come full circle in the valley, having taught students I see now at the high school back when they were in elementary and middle school,” Day said in her email. “The students and staff at Santa Ynez High School are wonderful, and I am excited to be part of the team.” 

Hrehor said that Day has put in a consistent effort to make connections with the students and student organizations, including the GSA. 

“It makes me feel relieved, honestly. Even though the position of principal is up in the air, we know that we have Ms. Day in that position and we will have her continued support in the years to come,” Hrehor said. 

Social Sciences teacher Greg Wolf told the Sun that efforts—like Day’s—to rebuild relationships will ultimately help the students gain trust in their administrators again and fully heal after what they experienced last year. 

“Relationships seem good now because we don’t have the drama, but the enthusiasm is not there, and I think that has a lot to do with a tumultuous spring semester and coming back with a lot of uncertainty,” Wolf said. “I still sense some apathy amongst some of the kids, and I think that has to do a lot with what happened last year. 

“With that said, I commend our interim principal for stepping in and keeping the school afloat, and that’s not easy, especially since it’s temporary,” he said.

While Torina has made it clear that he’s “students first,” Wolf added that the school will need permanent leadership to help move everyone forward, heal, and reestablish a positive school culture where there’s a sense of unity in social circles and the learning environment.

“It’s not that the culture is negative now, it just doesn’t feel like much is happening. We’re just in limbo; there’s not a lot of enthusiasm,” Wolf said. “The school won’t be fully healed until we find someone to take over and bring what’s needed to make that happen.”

Teachers and faculty have been focused on their classrooms and curriculums while waiting for a long-term plan, he said.

“I and other colleagues have spoken that there’s not a lot of concern for instability as far as our classrooms go. Again, there’s only so much we can do when there’s that uncertainty in the air,” Wolf said. “The school has so much potential because the kids are great and the teachers are great. Until we have a long-term direction, we can’t reach that potential, and I would like to see that sooner rather than later so we can reach that potential with the kids.” 

The district needs to find someone who makes the effort to connect with students, support them, and advocate for them, similar to Niehoff’s approach, he said. 

“The kids were using their voices more than I’ve seen in my whole career, and Niehoff opened that door for them,” Wolf said. “That’s them taking ownership of their own learning, advocating for themselves and what they want in their educational experience. I hope we continue down that path of welcoming their input on their own educational experience.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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