Admin trio gets fresh start at VAHS
Pheng Lee was “very hesitant to come to Verona” when he was offered an associate principal job at Verona Area High School in the spring.
In fact, he turned down the first job the district offered him in May, calling VAHS principal Pam Hammen two days before the school board was set to approve his contract.
“I knew that being an admin was going to take a lot of time, so I was like, ‘I want to spend time with my kid’ and I knew that wasn’t going to be the only opportunity I was going to get,” said Lee, whose daughter was born in June.
The position went to Dan Kigeya two weeks later, and Kigeya joined Tamara Sutor as a second new associate principal. But when another associate principal job opened up at the end of June, Hammen once again reached out to Lee, who had come to recognize it was an opportunity he wanted to take.
As Lee and Kigeya said, some things simply “happen for a reason.”
“Look at the three of us,” Lee said of how his turning down the job originally and Kigeya getting the position brought them all together. “That opened up things and things happened.”
Now, the three are working to fill the hole left by all of the last year’s associate principals leaving the school. So far, they’re enjoying the challenge, and each other.
“I feel like I’ve known these guys forever, and I think about it and it’s been a month-and-a-half,” Sutor said, with Lee pointing out that he’s actually only been on for a few weeks.
In an email to the Press, Hammen said she is excited to have new minds in the office, and looks forward to them bringing new ideas to the table to improve the school.
“It’s exciting to create a new team of professionals who will bring many fresh ideas and a unique gathered wisdom to VAHS,” Hammen said. “We are fortunate that they have decided to share their talents and insights with us and eagerly anticipate a great year ahead for Verona Area High School.”
The three joked with each other in Kigeya’s office last week as they shared their backgrounds and looked ahead to the upcoming year. They emphasized their focus on promoting teamwork and collaboration among students and staff for the upcoming year. They also hope to continue the district’s work to tackle the achievement gap, the difference in test scores and upper-level class enrollment between white and minority students.
“(Closing the achievement gap) is what I think our biggest challenge is,” Kigeya said. “But it is a goal that all of us are committed to.”
Though he’s lived just a mile from VAHS for eight years, Kigeya, 35, has spent the last three years working as a social worker in the Sun Prairie School District.
He first got into education while working in a pre-college program on college campuses, helping to encourage students to apply to college. But a former teacher he knew asked him to come speak to a group of educators that ended up inspiring his current career path.
“They invited me to come and speak and they said to me when I left that I need to go back and really think about getting into education,” Kigeya said. “I’d had multiple conversations with other people that said, ‘You should be in education,’ but that conversation was what really sparked the move.”
The Madison West High School graduate first started his work at La Follette High School in Madison, and he confirmed early on that he had found his “calling.”
“I feel like education is one of those transformative things that can have a big impact on kids and their futures, and I feel like I have a unique background that can help support kids in that process,” he said. “It was like the journey up until this point, it’s like this is what I was supposed to be doing.”
He was officially hired at the May 19 board meeting, two weeks after Lee had turned down the job the first time around.
So far, Kigeya said he’s looking forward to a year of “a lot of hard work” with the team that they’ve put together.
“The work is really hard, and it’s never-ending, but everybody that’s here and that’s on the team has been really dedicated to working together to make sure we get this stuff done for students,” he said. “There’s not one bad thing that I can say about one person that I’ve worked with.”
Sutor, 38, was inspired to get into education after working with a group of female high school dropouts through her degree in rehabilitation psychology.
“Bringing all of them in a room, and I just, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m at home,’” Sutor recalled. “I still think about those girls, so I knew I had to get back in schools. I wanted to get in schools before it gets to a point where they’re expelled.”
That experience also inspired one of her focuses as an educator: the achievement gap.
“A lot of the girls in that group were also students of color, and that’s when my equity focus and work really came,” she said. “I’m like, ‘What are we missing here? Why is this a group that’s not represented in our population?’”
She began in Janesville as a social worker at the district’s alternative high school before moving to the Middleton-Cross Plains School District to be the homeless education coordinator for eight years.
While Middleton was her childhood home and where she’s spent the majority of her education career, Sutor said Verona has become somewhere she can “genuinely and with my heart say this is home.”
“It’s home because everybody … have made me feel completely welcomed and I absolutely love the passion and the dedication in everything that I’ve already experienced with all of our staff,” she said.
She credited her father, who was a 30-year educator, her 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son as inspirations for her career, and her high school sweetheart husband with supporting her in a big move for her career.
While the family was excited for her, her son also expressed a concern when he heard his mom would now be a principal.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, man,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘What’s that about?’
“‘Now I have to listen to you every day.’”
When Lee, 34, got the call in late June from Hammen that another job had opened, he knew it was a sign he should take his second chance at the opportunity to come to Verona.
“The reason why I had a change in mind was, I had a conversation with my mom … the night before she had a heart attack she had called me and said, ‘Why didn’t you take the job?’” recalled Lee, whose mother passed away a week before his daughter was born. “When Pam called me in late June … I looked up and I said, ‘Thank you, Mom.’”
Lee, who was born in Thailand, graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a degree in biology and began as an interpreter in a northern Wisconsin school district where he also tutored kids. When he realized how much he enjoyed the tutoring, he decided to look into teaching, and began on a path that eventually brought him here.
He first taught science in Appleton before he moved to Sun Prairie High School, where he had taught for five years before getting his administrators’ certification this December.
Lee recognized another “things happen for a reason” moment when he was offered the second position.He became the director of the Exploration Academy, the district’s charter high school in its second year of operation, which focuses on students taking the lead on designing their projects.
He had been working on developing personalized learning ideas in his own classroom in Sun Prairie in recent years as he noticed there were some students his traditional methods weren’t reaching, and he’s excited to continue that type of work at EA.
“When they told me about Exploration Academy and how it’s project-based, lead by students, the projects are directed by students and you have the advisor team helping them, leading the way, setting some guidelines, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s what I was doing my seventh year as a teacher,’” he said. “I thought it was a good fit.”