Benner Elementary School principal named 2019 National Distinguished Principal
*By Brit Milazzo, public relations director, BASD
Kris Vancas, the principal at Benner Elementary School, was named the PA 2019 National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals – an organization that recognizes accomplished elementary and middle-level principals from across the country as part of its annual NDP program.
After being nominated by another administrator at Bellefonte Area School District, Vancas was required to write a series of essays; get recommendations from peers, supervisors and parents of students at the school; and go through an interview process; along with help coordinating a school visit with association representatives.
A report from NAESP said Vancas is recognized for his “collaborative leadership style; empowering his staff to create an environment where student can excel; and for his dedication to students, staff and community.”
Through this honor, Vancas will represent the Pennsylvania Principals Association at a conference and recognition ceremony in Washington, D.C. in October.
“In a lot of ways I’m embarrassed, but also very flattered and very appreciative,” Vancas said. “I’m not the best principal in Pennsylvania; I’m not even the best principal in Bellefonte. I always say I work with such great administrators who are also so well-deserving of this, if not more. I look at this as an award for all the success the students, staff and parents have done in this school and district.”
*Vancas was randomly selected for the district’s Employee Spotlight feature in the fall of 2018. Read more about him, here: https://www.basd.net/Page/14060
Question: How do you work with other principals in the district?
Answer: We have really close relationships. You get the principals together and it’s a tight group. We push each other – push each other’s thinking, challenge each other quite a bit – and that being said, there is a tremendous amount of respect for each other. Elementary principals meet a couple times a month about what’s going on in the buildings and different initiatives to make sure we’re attacking things similarly, so there is consistency among our buildings. I think we value each other’s expertise and opinions so much so that we always want to get feedback from each other. We’re lucky here and you can tell we can have a lot of fun, too.
Q: How do you work with teachers and other staff members at Benner?
A: In this building, I really depend on teachers to make a lot of decisions to be independent and collaborative with each other and myself. In this building, I don’t feel like I need to come in and dictate every decision that needs to be made. We can empower staff to make a lot of those decisions. Its cliché to say, but it’s a real teamwork type of approach and I’m a not a real top-down leader. I work with everyone to get feedback and try to have staff make many of the building decisions. When I do have to make those decisions, I still work with others to get feedback. Our teachers and staff are experts in what they do. I’ve been out of the classroom for 12 or 13 years – I used to think that I knew it all, but I realized that I’m not the expert of their classrooms, so I want to take into account their thoughts and perspectives when making decisions. I think that helps with the success and buy-in.
Q: As a principal, what do you think is your biggest strength?
A: I think the whole key to everything for me is about relationships with staff, kids and parents. I think that’s a real strength of our school. I think our teachers also build those same types of relationships and I think that’s why we have support and trust from the outside. We’ve built that rapport and trust with families, and they feel good about what we’re doing here and they should feel good! We’re far from perfect and we’re real people, as well. A lot of times parents have the idea that the principal might be more than what he or she really is. I hope they know I’m one of them, I’m a dad, so they see me at the ball fields and then at school, and it’s nice to balance that with our families so they can respect the trueness from me and what we bring to Benner.
Q: How did you go from teacher to principal?
A: I’m not so sure I ever wanted to leave the classroom, but became interested in the principal position after I participated in some interviews at Penns Valley (Area School District). As I was talking with candidates for the principal at my school at the time, I realized this is interesting and something I could do. I took the coursework and planned on sticking in the classroom for five or 10 more years, because I enjoyed the kids so much, but an opening came up as a vice principal at Bellefonte Elementary (School) and thought, ‘what a great way to get started in administration.’ I did not anticipate at all getting the position and had the tough decision of leaving the classroom, but I feel like I made the right decision. I spent five years at Bellefonte Elementary and have a great appreciation for that school, and ended up being transferred here at Benner about seven years ago. I’ve said this all along – I feel like this is as close to paradise for an elementary school that you can get.
Q: What is it about Benner Elementary School that makes it so great?
A: A lot of things. The community helps; the size of the building – we have 230 to 240 kids; the cohesiveness and family-like atmosphere; and the families outside of here. That’s where we’re really lucky. We have our challenges, but are made of such great families that support and embrace those challenges. It comes down to the families, the people, the kids, the building, the teachers and staff, and it’s a great place to be a principal at.
Q: What’s the best part of being an educator?
A: The best part is being around kids every single day and having fun and knowing you’re impacting kids. I was always in elementary schools. It’s the only place I really want to be. I don’t directly teach kids in the classroom anymore, but I’m here teaching them lessons differently. I know I get a chance to impact and help them, and that’s important. You don’t know the kind of day they’re having when they walk in, but you know you can positively affect them for the next six hours they’re here. It’s the simple stuff by taking time to recognize them whether it’s a high five or (saying) ‘good morning’ or whatever that is. What’s important is being visible and available to students and staff. They know where I’m, and it comes down to what we’re doing here is bigger than me.