Big school but open door
Seattle Times staff reporter
The office at Meadowdale High School was all a-bustle.
Several days earlier, about a half-dozen seniors were caught painting on the football field to celebrate their departure. Stopped by police, the students were suspended, and their parents were told the students wouldn't be allowed to participate in commencement.
On that sunny Thursday afternoon, the suspended students and their parents were back to appeal the decision of Norm Hoffman, the principal. The parents, upset at their children, wanted to know what could be done.
"Walking through graduation is the most important part of a student's life, especially when you get close to it," Hoffman said later.
But Hoffman, a 53-year-old, suit-wearing principal and a pal of even the most troublesome of students, initially took a hard line. He has expectations when it comes to graduation: Graduates don't vandalize.
Students, staff members and parents alike will miss Hoffman, whose last day of 10 years as Meadowdale's principal is today. Hoffman, they say, was able to make a big school — now more than 1,600 students — feel like a small school through his friendliness and open-door policy.
"He's wonderful at compelling you to do your best," said Matt Wallace, 29, a history teacher and once an administrative intern under Hoffman. "At any time, any student, staff or parent can walk into his office and talk."
As he wanders through the cafeteria during lunchtime, it's apparent many students do walk through his door, even when they're not in trouble. They flash him smiles, wave or yell "Hey, Mr. Hoffman!" as he walks past.
"I want to call him a friend, without making it seem too personal," said Katina Velloth, 16, who will be a junior in the fall. "I go in to talk to him instead of my counselor."
Hoffman said he doesn't know all of the students — there are just too many — but he greets by name the students in the office, hall and lunchroom.
The students are the reason he is a principal, he said.
His story began at Washington State University, where he said he took a "heavy dose" of history courses and got really excited about the subject.
"I thought, 'I think I could do this,' " he said. "I really enjoyed teaching."
He went to work as a history teacher in the La Conner School District in Skagit County, but within a year he was tapped to be the principal of the district's 150-student high school. He was 25 and told he was the youngest principal in the state.
"The superintendent said I could be the principal, but I didn't look old enough," Hoffman said. "So he told me to grow a beard, so I did that."
He was principal there for seven years and then superintendent for six. Afterward, he went to another small school district, Garfield-Palouse in Eastern Washington, where he was principal of both the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school and the high school.
Not long after arriving at Garfield-Palouse, his father's health began to deteriorate because of lung cancer, and Hoffman returned to his family's farm near Edison, Skagit County. In 1994, he was hired as an assistant principal at Meadowdale and was bumped up to acting principal the next year.
"Norm stood out because he had been in a small school system, and he had been a superintendent," said Brian Benzel, who was superintendent of the Edmonds School District when Hoffman was hired. He was able to "think bigger than his school and also think around the mission of his school."
Benzel gave Hoffman the task of making Meadowdale, 1,000 students and growing at the time, feel like the small schools the principal had worked at previously. He was able to achieve that by hiring people who shared his open-door mentality and leading by example, Benzel said.
Hoffman taught an American-government class through most of his tenure as principal and superintendent, something most administrators don't find time to do, Benzel said.
"You get into a school the size of Meadowdale, and that's a very rare occurrence," said Benzel, who is now the superintendent of the Spokane Public Schools. "I've thought about doing that as a superintendent, but I can't quite get my hands around it."
According to Wallace, the history teacher, teaching a class while managing a high school that was going through a remodel and a mascot change (from Chiefs to Mavericks) must not have been easy.
"He's the first here and the last to leave, and it's always been that way," Wallace said. "Even when he's retiring."
Hoffman rented an apartment in Everett so he didn't have to battle traffic between the school and the family farm every day.
But now he's returning to the farm — "It's a place where my heart and my roots are" — and his wife, Cathy, for his retirement, but not before a much-needed summer vacation. Fishing, boating and some local traveling are in the plans, he said.
"Once I fill the freezer with fish, I'll scratch my head and ask, 'What will I do now?' " he said.
At Meadowdale, Hoffman will be replaced by Dale Cote, an assistant principal at Kirkland Junior High School. Students and staff members are excited about the newcomer but sad to see "Mr. Hoffman" go.
"We're all ready with our tissue boxes," said Velloth. "It will be hard [for us], but it will be good for him."
And what happened to the students who were caught painting the field? They walked with their fellow seniors at commencement after all — their offense wasn't as bad as some former students who were putting paint on the buildings the same night, Hoffman said. The graduating seniors did have to write and sign a confession and perform some manual labor around the school.
It'll be a good example for the rest of the students, Hoffman said.
Brian Alexander: 425-745-7813 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company