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Principal of the Year stresses pride, joy

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VALPARAISO — When Heavilin Elementary School Principal Bonnie Stephens heard the speech announcing the Elementary School Principal of the Year award at the Indiana Association of School Principals conference, she knew she hadn’t won. And then her name was called.

“It was shocking and pleasing and terrifying all at the same time,” she said.

Her husband Michael Stephens, associate superintendent at Portage Township Schools, knew three weeks in advance so that he could capture video. Fellow Valparaiso Community Schools principals and the district's assistant superintendent were there, too.

“They all knew I was getting this award,” she said. So did her brother, who referred to it during his sermon that morning in Highland. He swore the congregation to secrecy. Hundreds of people probably knew about the award before Stephens did, she said.

Stephens was at the conference to give a presentation on the Viking Puppy Project. School dogs like her sidekick Moses bring joy to students when they visit them.

Moses is popular with Heavilin students. “We have the Moses wave,” she said, when students wave to him while walking past. Moses waves back by wagging his tail.

Arrival time for students is precious, Stephens said. “That’s the moment of the day that’s full of promise.”

Positive experiences are important to her. That’s why she has a standing desk on wheels. It allows her to take her laptop wherever she needs to go. In almost every case where she has to correct a student’s behavior, she can do it away from the office. That removes the stigma of being sent to the office.

“The office is a positive place for kids,” she said. “Everybody is important in the experience the students have.”

This year's theme at the school is pride and joy. “After COVID, we thought it was important for kids to recognize what is joy and spread joy,” Stephens said.

The school bought over 1,000 8-ounce jars with plastic lids. Families donate small items to put in there. A sticker is added. “We call them Heavilin joy jars, and we send them out and just try to teach kids to spread joy to other people."

In November, sensory jars were created using water and sequins or water beads. The jars help kids calm down as they watch the items float down through the water.

“Pride is a whole big deal,” she said.

Students are organized into houses, the same as those at Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Students spotted doing some good are rewarded with a pride ticket. They go to the office to deposit their ticket in a bucket with their house’s name on it. Kids whose tickets are pulled get to pose with Moses for a silly selfie as a reward. “It’s just simple, but they feel special,” Stephens said.

Students who learn math facts are given a crown to wear on Fridays as math fact royalty. The number of gems — plastic beads — on the crown shows how far the student has advanced. “I always tell them, you wear your crown with pride, because you have earned it.”

The staff wants to make schooling fun, so they do things like have pajama days when kids wear pajamas to school. More than that, though, they get excited about the kids’ learning growth.

The fun extends to the staff, too. At 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, after the kids have left, the teachers formed two teams and had a Nerf gun war.

“Schools are places of community, and we take care of each other,” Stephens said.

“It’s pretty magical.”

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