Jennifer Keenan Wolfe, Post-Master’s Principal Certification '10Master’s of Education for Working Teachers
Vermont’s Only Preschool Principal Is Also a Teacher and Community Cheerleader
It’s fitting that Jennifer Wolfe’s office is a corner of a preschool classroom in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union building in Bellows Falls, Vermont. As both the first and only preschool principal in Vermont and a teacher, she is right in the thick of things, wearing her two hats, and sometimes an apron.
“I’m a regular old principal who knows how to make Play-Doh,” Jennifer said, one day in December after her students had gone home. “I spent my morning up to my elbows in biscuit dough.”
Jennifer was hired in 2002 to start a public preschool as part of the Early Education program for the supervisory union. As support from the community has grown, the program has expanded steadily and now includes three public preschool sites serving seventy children. It also has a partnership with private preschools to educate another seventy students.
And it’s working. Kindergarten readiness data from the Vermont State Department of Education show that the number of kids in the district entering kindergarten ready to learn is growing. Most improved is their social and emotional readiness, Jennifer said.
“We work on independence, social skills, how to sit peacefully and joyfully in a circle and listen to others, how to take direction from someone who isn’t their parent,” Jennifer said. “The joy of learning and tenacity and trying again, determination—all the stuff that is really important for schooling.”
Building a Learning Community
In addition to teaching two preschool classes, Jennifer’s job includes budgeting and finance, overseeing contracts, dealing with outreach teachers, and handling all the other administrative policies and details that fall to a principal. But often her job goes beyond teaching and administration. “It’s super-fulfilling work and it’s also supporting the families,” Jennifer said. “We’re building parents into a community of learning, parents who may not have had a good experience with school in the past. So a lot of it is building a good first school experience.”
“Working with children and families is a deep and abiding love of mine,” she said. “We have an amazing staff, and being in preschool allows me to forge a community with families. This community needs as many positive things as we can provide for the families and kids. And in the community, people have come to realize that readiness is paramount and high-quality preschool is essential.”
Jennifer grew up outside New York City, earned a degree in early childhood and high-school education and worked in Manhattan while getting her master’s degree in elementary education from the Bank Street College of Education. After teaching in private schools for ten years, she took five years off to have children, meanwhile making her way to Vermont. She was working in a Cornish, New Hampshire, school when she saw an advertisement for the preschool position in Bellows Falls. Hired in August, she had a preschool up and running by October.
By 2009, it was obvious that the district’s Early Education program needed a principal. Of course, it already had one; she just didn’t have the title. “I had always wanted to be a principal and thought of that as the next step in my career,” Jennifer said. When she told that to the superintendent, he said, “Do it!”
She entered the Master’s of Education for Working Teachers program at Antioch University New England (AUNE) that year to earn a Post-Master’s Principal Certification. At AUNE, she learned the nuts and bolts of a principal’s job—data analysis, legal issues, budgeting, and finance. The program also helped strengthen her leadership skills and reinforced the concept that leadership is much more than just supervision. “Every kid has different needs, and every staff member has their own skill set, and I have to be with them right where they are,” she said. “Antioch has helped me give language and form to that concept.”
AUNE also helped her build other skills. “It really touches on things that other programs don’t—the feeling of working together as a team,” she said. “My cohort was amazing, because education is about people.”