Q & A With Principal Dr. Jason Ness

Q & A With Principal Dr. Jason Ness

By Adisa Ozegovic

The Niles West News had an opportunity to talk to principal Dr. Jason Ness about the following school year and his goals on what he’d like to see improve at Niles West.

NWN: On August 18, you held an assembly where you made the students take the lead, what was your purpose for that?
Ness: I like change; I like doing things that are novel and a little bit different and outside the box. I think kids just want to be talked at. Student voice is very important to me. I think often times the adults are busy talking about what’s best for students but students aren’t necessarily always heard in a way. So I took a risk, and instead of just sitting there lecturing, or having our staff lecture, I took a risk. When I say a risk, I mean a good one. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen there?

It was an opportunity for students to envision what their school would be like. I mean, you have to come here each and every day for four years and I see our role as supporting a school environment that kids feel connected to, that they value. I was hoping for some more deeper responses but I mean we have 1,300 kids in there, so you know it’s hard to be that person that comes up. I see a school where all kids feel valued, I envision a school where all kids, and I know this is asking a lot but in an ideal way, where all kids realize their potential and feel respected. I see a school system where teachers and students connect with each other, where it’s a strong relation.

I’m in and out of student government groups, teams, athletic events, the fine art performances, and you hear from kids and a lot of times, they’re right. The student perspective is very important because if you are going to make adjustments, it has to make sense to them. Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do. I mean, I can’t do anything about nine periods a day, the start time or end time, the snow days, or things like that. There’s a lot of discretion but I mean, you want to have a place where when you get up in the morning, you feel excited about going to and seeing friends, teachers, and learning. Maybe there is a club, maybe there’s a play, or you play an instrument, who knows?

So, that’s what I wanted to have, a place where people are excited about being here. And then when they’re excited and they’re happy, that is a trickle effect and everybody feels that way around them. If you’re around people that are happy and engaged, it’s contagious. On the flip side of that, you get people that are complaining and it’s dreary and that also has an effect, but in the wrong way. So, yes, we have that assembly because the main reason was our counselors had to meet with our students. There’s a little bit of a void there where we have to make sure that we’re visible and you can attach a name to us. Maybe next time, I’ll tweak it a little bit and add a couple of activities.

NWN: Do you think engaging the students worked in the way you wanted it to work?
Ness: I think I got some superficial responses like the cafeteria food, but there was some things that were interesting, though. The main thing students talked about was the homework and I think that’s a good thing. There are some kids that are taking a lot of courses that have a lot of homework involved That’s something that we have to look at. We have to be careful that we’re not drowning people with homework because you don’t want to discourage them from taking high level classes and stretching themselves just because there’s a workload that’s not conducive. Maybe they’re in sports or some other things after school as well. So, maybe the perfect responses weren’t there and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s really not what I was looking for. I think the message that student voice is important to me and the administration here was really what I wanted to get out of that.

NWN: Some students said they’d rather that school started later and someone mentioned the cafeteria food. Is there anyway you could change any of these things?
Ness: Every year there’s something about the cafeteria food. We try to make sure that we have the kids eat portions that are the right size. A couple of years ago, we went from these very large portions to smaller sizes and that was a lot of controversy. Another thing you mentioned was late start. I think that’s something that a lot of research organizations are coming out saying that students do better with a little bit of a later start because they’re awake. At West, we’re about typical start time for the state of Illinois. We start at about 8-ish, unless you’re in early bird.

But really, with anything, it takes a lot of conversations with that and groups of people to change. It’s never just one individual. If a community of students really feel strongly about something that could be something that comes up through our conversations or opportunities for the student government to talk with the board. We have a breakfast with the board, so sometimes these things come up like school day, what our school days will look like, late starts, and questions like is a later start possible? But you’ve got to remember, a later start day means a later dismissal, and then there are after school teams, clubs, and activities. Really, you’ve got to weigh all that and see what makes sense for all the people.

With the cafeteria food, we’ll always have to be able to work with the cafeteria staff and make sure that they’re serving food that people want to eat. I think student voice is important there, as well. There should be a constant communication and that’s why when we meet with our student government, they’ll speak on behalf on the other classes to talk about some of their concerns and things they want to see improved. In turn, we’ll talk with the cafeteria folks from Organic Life.

NWN: This new school year, what are some things you want to change in order to improve West?
Ness: I think we’re always continually improving. We’re always looking to get better. What I’d love to see this year is 100% of our kids participate in some type of club, activity, or extracurricular. I think kids do better when they feel more connected and involved. I think 3:00 to 5:00 is a deadly time and, what I mean by that is that, if they’re not busy doing some things, it’s lost time. It’s a time where they’re best connected with peers and other adults in the building outside of the classroom which I think is a really cool thing.

I would love to see all of our kids here take at least one AP class. I think developing a culture of high expectations for our students that high level and highly rigorous courses are attainable for all of our kids and that they’re in a position that to take these courses, and also experience some success that prepares them for college or whatever career they’d like to go into, that would be something that I’d like to see even more. We’ve made tremendous strides and had tremendous growth percentages of kids taking at least one AP course, but we still have a long way to go.

Also, I think that I’d love to see more student spirit. I’d love to see more attendance at our football games, basketball games, our extracurricular events. It’s good now, but I’d love to see the school spirit at the games where the high school becomes the hub. That’s what I did when I was in high school. We all went to the games and met up and it was such a great environment and atmosphere. I’d love to see that. I think through the last few years, we’ve come a long way on school spirit with our assemblies. We have some great things planned for this year for homecoming that I think the kids will enjoy.

There’s an academic side to that question but there’s also a school spirit side. We have such a large variety of kids and backgrounds that attend here and I’d just love to see a bully-free zone where everyone feels welcome and accepted. I know that’s a vision and an aspiration, but I think we can do that.

NWN: How do you think you’ll be able to achieve that?
Ness: Through student voice. If kids are driving and their ideas and their involved in the creation of activities of fun things to do at the games or events, I think that’s half the battle. If there’s just a bunch of adults sitting here talking about what we think is cool, it probably won’t go too far. What we think is cool is probably about twenty years outdated. So, I think student voice is a big piece to that and listening. You’ve got to listen. I think adults spend a lot of time talking. I think that’s a big piece and you can learn a lot that way.

NWN: Say you could only choose one thing, what would you say is the best part of your job?
Ness: The students. I mean that’s why we’re here. It’s working with young people in a variety of different backgrounds, and having the opportunity to interact and coach and mentor and assist help develop. It’s really a tremendous responsibility and seeing people become successful and believe in themselves and just playing some small part in that. I mean, certainly kids interface with people all the time, with friends, coaches, sponsors, but if you can play a small role in getting them to achieve their dreams. I mean everyone’s got hopes, right? But to make those things become a reality, that’s why I say students.

NWN: You’ve taught at West for seven years. In your opinion, what makes West stand out from the other schools you’ve taught at?
Ness: I think it’s the community, the sense of community. I think the willingness of people to help out or to lend a hand and assist, shows how West has tremendous compassion and a tremendous sense of purpose with a central focus centered on the kids and that’s not something that you see everywhere. When people come to the building that are new to the district, or rather new to the building specifically, they are amazed at the types of programming and the willingness of people to help out. I think we all have been in situations where we don’t know what we’re doing, whether we’re new to a school or a new department, it can be very overwhelming. What stands out here is that there is no shortage of people here that are willing to help.

NWN: Do you think you’ll be here longer?
Ness: I hope so. I want to be. I love it here and I’ve been here a long time. I always call Niles West, it’s like a group in the city. I love the urban feel to the high school but we have suburban resources. We have the best facilities. Here, you get the best of both worlds. Why would you leave if you have a community that supports the building, supports what we’re doing here as a school? We have an unbelievable faculty and I have a great administrative team. There’s no reason to go anywhere, there really isn’t. It’s a great place.