Charting One School’s Challenging Course

As the principal of Montpelier High, Charlie Phillips has worked to make his school a place where teachers and administrators listen to kids

Montpelier High School, 1915
Wikimedia Commons

"Everyone calls him Charlie. He has spent 34 years here at Montpelier High School, in the Vermont capital. English teacher. Athletic director. Now principal. His beard has grown gray here inside these walls." Writers Richard and Joyce Wolkomir, in search of the day-to-day reality of life on the front lines of adolescence, followed principal Charlie Phillips on his rounds. Along the way, the Wolkomirs found a school, "not large, not small, not rich, not poor ... in many ways, merely typical" — but distinctive in its commitment to the individual student.

As tragedy has engulfed schools around the country, most dramatically at Columbine, in Colorado, Charlie Phillips has focused on prevention. Special teachers and a counselor are available for students diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders. This emphasis on individual attention has shaped the experience of every student here — from a gifted junior weighing his AP course schedule for the next years, to a young woman from an abusive family who dreams of being a high school English teacher, to an aspiring auto mechanic who wants to arrange an on-the-job assignment for academic credit.

In the lives of these students, and the teachers devoted to creating this supportive and academically excellent environment, the Wolkomirs chronicle the story of a school that works. In the final analysis, "what we try to do in this school," says Phillips, "is to err on the side of human kindness."

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