Bowing out: At CHS, it's the principal of the thing
Less than two months after he took the top job at Charlottesville High School, new principal Aaron Bissonnette's resignation less than a week before the first day of school has sparked concern and questions.
"I was surprised," says Lisa Drake, who hopes to serve as president of the CHS Parent Teacher Organization this year. She recalls the months-long search last spring that culminated in Bissonnette's hire and says she has no information about the "personal matters" cited by Bissonnette in his August 15 letter to parents— including this reporter— and staff announcing his decision to resign, effective immediately.
"I regret to leave so soon after my arrival, and I appreciate your collective understanding in a time of need for me," Bissonnette wrote. "I will be leaving the school at the close of business today. Perhaps after these matters are taken care of, I will be able to rejoin the Charlottesville City Schools in the future."
In response, the city schools issued only a brief official statement expressing disappointment and wishing Bissonnette "the best as he attends to personal matters." Bissonnette, the statement reads, would be "welcome" back to the division in the future. There would be no further information released about the matter, said new school spokesperson Beth Cheuk in an email accompanying the statement.
So what was behind Bissonnette's decision to leave?
According to Charlottesville School Board Chair Juandiego Wade, the personal matter may have really been more of a personal choice. Teachers had welcomed Bissonnette and were getting used to a new administration that also included two new assistant principals, as well as a new athletic director. "They had nothing bad to say about him," says Wade of the teachers with whom he's spoken.
Wade points out that Charlottesville High School is the "flagship" of the city schools, and that while it has a reputation for academic excellence with extensive AP and advanced course offerings, it is also challenged by the percentage of students living in poverty, with almost 60 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunches.
"It's a tough job," says Wade, who says he was "really disappointed" by the resignation. For Bissonnette, Wade says, it seems the job just "wasn't the right fit."
"We have to take him at his word for it," says Wade, expressing gratitude that Bissonnette, whose salary was just under $119,000, according to budget documents reported in the Daily Progress, chose to depart before school started rather than when students had already returned.
Taking Bissonnette's place as principal is recently hired CHS Assistant Principal Jill Dahl, who spent the past two years in administration at the city's Clark Elementary School and nine years working for public schools in Florida. There, according to spokesperson Cheuk, she was coordinator of AVID, an educational program aimed at closing the achievement gap. Wade notes that Dahl, who is a literacy specialist, also has a military background, and says he and his fellow school board members are confident in her ability to lead.
"The last thing we want to do is put someone in who couldn't handle it," he says.
Drake says she believes the decision to hire someone at the school rather than conduct another search was the right one.
"It seems to me we should wish [Bissonnette] the best and move forward because that's what our kids need," says Drake. "A positive attitude, a positive tone, that's what we as adults are here to provide."