Deer Lakes Middle School chief named Principal of Year

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Thomas A. Lesniewski, principal of Deer Lakes Middle School, doesn't consider himself an especially innovative educator.

Rather, his philosophy is to study the habits of other successful educators and "steal from the best."

His philosophy apparently is working.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Deer Lakes Middle School Principal Thomas A. Lesniewski will be honored in Harrisburg as Pennsylvania's 2007 Middle Level Principal of the Year. He was named through a program sponsored by MetLife.
Click photo for larger image.

Mr. Lesniewski, 49, has been named Pennsylvania's 2007 Middle Level Principal of the Year in the MetLife/National Association of Secondary School Principals Principal of the Year Program.

"I was shocked when the association called and told me I was the winner," he said.

The program, started in 1993, honors exemplary secondary school principals. Candidates are nominated by their peers, students, parents or members of the community.

Mr. Lesniewski, of Butler Township, was nominated by Deer Lakes Assistant Superintendent Janet Ciramella, who said his "open door" leadership style creates an atmosphere that helps students transition into high school.

"He's a very student-centered principal. He doesn't look just at academics but at the whole student. ... He spends a great deal of time explaining why something is the way it is," she said.

For Mr. Lesniewski, character development is just as important as academics.

"Kids have to be aware that you really need to treat people the way you want to be treated," he said.

Kevin Fillgrove, chairman of the national association's awards committee and principal of Ephrata Middle School in Ephrata, Lancaster County, said his committee was impressed by Mr. Lesniewski's efforts to create a positive building environment.

One of the ways he has done that is by starting a Parent Teacher Guild at the school, a practice that has been successful in other middle schools.

"It's difficult sometimes to get parents of middle school kids to be involved. Establishing a PTO is a great outreach to those parents," Mr. Fillgrove said.

Ms. Ciramella also cited Mr. Lesniewski's commitment to technology updates. He and other staff wrote grants to secure funding for LCD projectors and portable computer labs that the district otherwise couldn't afford.

Mr. Lesniewski, who graduated from Edinboro University, started his career as a social studies teacher. But after 15 years as a teacher and a coach, the Erie native and father of three was eager to tackle the challenges of administration.

He earned a master's degree in secondary administration from Westminster College and a doctorate from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

His first administrative role was as assistant principal of Knoch High School in the South Butler County School District. He then served as principal of Riverside High School in Beaver County before coming to Deer Lakes in 2003.

Though he has moved from the classroom to the front office, Mr. Lesniewski hasn't lost touch with the energy and honesty that make middle school students unique. He tries to have direct contact with his students every day, often through visits to the cafeteria.

"I absolutely love kids this age. Their energy level and enthusiasm is great. ... I really enjoy coming to work everyday," he said.

Mr. Lesniewski will be honored at the state secondary school principals association conference Oct. 21-23 in Harrisburg. His name has been submitted to the national association with the other state winners for the national competition.

Alisha Hipwell is a freelance writer.


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