“My success story is the story of lots of people around me,” says Thad Schmenk, principal of Alston Middle School.
Schmenk, in his second year as principal, credits many mentors along the way, as well as the community of students, teachers and parents at Alston, for helping him reach his goals. But it's clear to others that Schmenk himself deserves much of the credit.
When Schmenk arrived at Alston, he found that outgoing principal Sam Clark had given the go-ahead to a collaborative program with Leadership Dorchester to develop a garden at the school to encourage healthy eating.
As it was his first year, it would have been easy to delay or dismiss the program, said Carrie Bovender, a member of that Leadership Dorchester class. Instead, he embraced it and worked through the summer to install an automated watering system using water runoff from air-conditioning units, gathered donations and determined the garden layout to ensure the program would be ready when students arrived, she said.
“Thad's energy and commitment to this project were without limits and the resulting success can not be overstated,” said Jennifer Schlette, who helped start the Hunger Ends Now Project, or Hen Project, and the CHEFS project at Alston.
Now the CHEFS (Culinary and Horticultural Education for Students) program has been incorporated into the curriculum, with all students learning about horticulture, cooking and healthy food choices.
The garden is very much a learning lab for students.
“We kill a lot of things, unfortunately, but it's part of the learning process,” he said. Students have to figure out why a plant died – Too much water? Too little water? Too much sun? Too little sun?
“Just like in science, you learn as much from your failures as your successes,” he said.
More than simply a garden, the collaboration with Leadership Dorchester has been a “wonderful catalyst” for new relationships that enhance the learning environment at Alston, Schmenk said.
Students have been on field trips to local farms, and a mentoring program has found that working one-on-one with students in the school garden gives students a non-confrontational environment to talk about their problems, he said.
Growing up, Schmenk didn't expect to find himself making a career in schools. In high school he spent a year in Germany, and he thought he'd go into international business.
But at the College of Charleston, he found himself drafted into being a German tutor. When he returned to Germany for a year, he ended up acting as an English tutor, and he became a resident adviser at the College, helping plan programs for students.
Those experiences shifted his focus, and he ended up becoming a teacher – in Japan.
Schmenk spent three years in Japan, where he taught English to students, helped draft an English curriculum and trained other teachers.
As his visa expired, he reached out to a former mentor about job openings and landed a job at Fort Dorchester High School teaching German.
Shortly after returning to the area, he met his wife, Susan, who had also attended the College of Charleston, though they hadn't met there.
Schmenk earned his master's degree and moved into the assistant principalship at Fort Dorchester, then to the top position at Alston.
At first he was unsure of making the move to lower grades, but now, he said, “I've totally fallen in love with middle school.”
As if being a principal isn't enough, Schmenk coaches fencing in Mt. Pleasant and Charleston.
He got started in 2005 by teaching his daughter and a neighbor's child in his living room.
“After about two months my wife informed me that was no longer going to be an option,” he said.
Friends helped him approach the recreation department in Mt. Pleasant and he started teaching a class of 12. Now, more than 50 children are involved in the program and some have competed in the Junior Olympics.
With all that's happening at Alston, Schmenk said the next few years will be devoted to embracing the new initiatives and doing them well.
The school, which has a fine arts focus, has earned almost $58,000 in grants and the school will continue to develop its fine arts curriculum, Schmenk said.
He's committed to reaching all students, regardless of level, he said. By doing so, he's passing along the help he received from so many others. No one rises to a prominent community position like principal without help from others along the way, he said.
“I am a success because of the help and the people around me,” Schmenk said.