When Chuck Ochocki became the principal at Stillwater Junior High School five years ago, he offered the teaching staff a challenge.
“He asked us to attend at least five activities outside of the school day, whether it be a sporting event, concert, play or anything else where we could just watch our students,” says Kathy Meyer, math teacher at the school. “His obvious goal was for us to get to know our students and to appreciate their unique strengths and talents outside of an academic environment. He knew that when students feel they have a relationship with their teachers, good things will happen.”
Good things are indeed happening at the school. In fact, Ochocki’s dedication and demonstrated leadership recently earned him accolades from the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals as he was selected the 2015 Minnesota Middle Level Principal of the Year.
The key to the junior high school’s success, according to Ochocki, is teamwork and building relationships with the approximately 1,200 students that make up the school’s student body.
“I trust the staff to do their work,” Ochocki says. “The parents are doing the best they can, and the kids are doing their best, for the most part. So it’s really seeing the positive for everyone.”
But Ochocki doesn’t just talk the talk of getting to know the students; he sets aside time to build his own relationships with students. For the first 20 minutes of every day, Ochocki meets with 24 ninth-grade young men in an advisory period. Working together, the students and Ochocki review grades, set aside time for additional tutoring, discuss topics and, on Fridays, head outside for a game of football, Frisbee or basketball. The daily time reminds Ochocki of why he chose the focus of his career to be junior high students.
“They have the maturity of high school students, but they come to school with the enthusiasm of elementary school kids, in that they want someone to push them,” Ochocki says. “I think it’s the best of both worlds. I can have meaningful conversation with them, and they come motivated every day to do better.”
When speaking of the 2015 Minnesota Middle Level Principal of the Year recognition, Ochocki says it was “an absolute shock,” but his staff members say the recognition was well deserved. “Chuck is hands-down the best administrator I’ve ever worked with,” says Chris Mentz, a science teacher who has taught at Stillwater Junior High for the past 15 years. “He is always striving to do better at his job, and his example makes it easy to work for him. We know that he is working to improve and, in turn, so should we.”
Perhaps one reason why Ochocki excels at his job is that he recognized his passion for education and had the courage to follow his heart. “I never planned to be in education. I never planned to be a principal,” he says. “I was going to be a lawyer, but then, during my junior year of college, I started running camps for high school kids.” That led Ochocki to change his focus to education, and later, at the prompting of his coworkers, he took the first steps into school administration.
So now that school is out, how does Ochocki spend his summer break? In addition to planning for the 2015-16 school year, he will take a vacation with his wife, Dana, and their two sons.
“He’s one of those fathers who has a deep affection for his [family] and his energy comes from that place,” says parent and school volunteer Christi LeClair. “He has a passion for his career, and we’re the beneficiaries of that.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION about Stillwater Junior High School, visit their website here.