WAKE FOREST — “Collaboration” and “family” are more than just buzzwords for Heritage High School Principal Mark Savage, and Friday brought even more occasion for a communal celebration.
As Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” played over the public-address system, Savage was rewarded with hugs, high fives and fist bumps from students and staff for being named the Wake County school system’s 2013 Principal of the Year. It was another way for the Heritage High community to celebrate what’s good about the school.
“You guys are great,” Savage told students in one of the many classes he visited Friday morning. “That’s why I got the award.”
The award capped a major year for Savage, who saw the school’s first official class of seniors graduate in June. It’s what Savage, 44, had been working toward since he accepted the job of opening Heritage High in 2010.
Back then, Savage was in a comfortable position of being principal of Wakefield High School in North Raleigh. But the veteran educator took the opportunity to be part of creating a new high school.
“There’s something exciting about building a culture as you have your first graduating class, your first concert, your first touchdown,” he said.
There were some bumps along the way, such as when the school, whose mascot is the Huskies, was told it had to change its logo because it looked too much like the one the University of Washington used for many years.
Even then, Savage said they found a bright side by having a contest in which students were invited to design new logos.
“It might seem like pie in the sky, but we’re so much beyond where we thought we’d be,” he said. “There’s a great sense of community here.”
Barbara Travers, co-chairwoman of the English Department, said the school’s culture is built on respect. Travers, who joined Savage in making the move from Wakefield High, said the principal works from the bottom up and not the top down, trusting that the staff knows how to do its job.
Savage said he views his job as one of removing obstacles and creating opportunities.
Travers said Savage also has paid out of his own pocket many times to buy items for disadvantaged students. Travers called Savage one of the best administrators she’s worked with in her 30 years in education.
“We like to see ourselves as a family,” she said. “His view is, ‘You come into my home, and you’re all my children.’”
For Savage, the highlights of his day come during “pop-ins” into classrooms. While Savage and his assistant principals have to make regular classroom visits for official observations of teachers, he said they also individually make at least 10 visits a week just to see how things are going.
Savage said he often makes 20 “pop-in” visits a week to classes, which gets the students used to seeing him. He said it also lets him see what practices used by some teachers should be shared with their colleagues.
The approachability extends beyond the school day as well for Savage, who lives in Wake Forest near the school. He’s often at after-school events, holding the defense sign at football games and leading cheers.
“He’s so much of a people person,” said Dalicia Thomas, 17, a senior. “He’s very chill.”
Another senior, Martin Bell, 17, said Savage helped him get through a tough time in 2011 when his father died.
“He’s really good at interacting with the students,” Bell said. “He really wants to be part of everybody’s life.”