Students not the only ones starting fresh

After 19 years in the Bethel public schools system, Derek Muharem is now principal of Long River Middle School. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI
After 19 years in the Bethel public schools system, Derek Muharem is now principal of Long River Middle School. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

PROSPECT — The start of a new school year can be an anxious time for students — particularly those entering a new school for the first time. Long River Middle School Principal Derek Muharem had a message for incoming sixth-graders at orientation last week: they aren’t alone.

“I said, ‘This is my first time here, too. So, we’re doing this together this year. We’re going to learn the system. We’re going to learn the rules. We’re going to learn how to do things because I’m coming in just like you — brand new.’ And I think that made them feel a little bit more comfortable,” Muharem said.

Muharem was hired by the Region 16 Board of Education, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, in April to succeed retired Principal Jayne Lanphear. Muharem’s first official day on the job was in July.

The 44-year-old Prospect resident admitted he was a little anxious on his first day. He has spent the last 19 years — his entire education career — working in the Bethel public school system.

“Any school you go to, any district you go to, education is education. Your goal is to help students achieve and grow and be successful. But every district has their own policies, their own traditions and the way they do things. Coming into Region 16, I had to learn what goes on here and how we do things, and I’m still learning,” Muharem said.

That learning included spending the summer meeting with teachers and parents while learning the lay of his new school. He also sat down with administrators from Prospect Elementary School, Laurel Ledge Elementary School and Woodland Regional High School to get a feel of how things are done in the district.

“No matter how many years you’ve been in education, each and every year is a new start, is a fresh start for everyone,” Muharem said. “We look forward to that.”

Muharem had another message for the incoming sixth-graders: the expectations on a person get higher as they grow older.

“We’re going to have a lot of fun here at Long River and we’re going to do lot of great things, but our kids here are going to be pushed to achieve high expectations,” Muharem said.

What students and parents can expect from Muharem is a highly-visible principal.

“I will be in the hallways. I will be in the classrooms. I will be in the lobby greeting kids,” Muharem said.

Muharem added that parents can also expect a highly-communicative principal, one that understands where they are coming from.

“As a middle school parent myself, I’m in the trenches with them,” he said.

Muharem and his wife, Anna, an English teacher at Woodland, have three school-age daughters, the oldest is entering eighth grade this year.

“[Parents] can expect that I’m going to try to provide them with resources of information,” he said. “The middle level years are difficult.”

The resources Muharem is referring to will include Ryan’s Story, an informational program on bullying and its signs planned for Oct. 11 at the school. The program is led by John Halligan whose son, Ryan, committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 13 due to bullying.

Though it may come across as cliché, Muharem said he wants Long River to be a school where students can’t wait to return to once they leave for the day. He wants students to know they have teachers who care about them and will work hard to create engaging lessons that challenge them on a global level.

“Think about it this way, Region 16 is a small town but there’s no reason why kids here in Beacon Falls and Prospect can’t have the same resources or education as kids in big districts,” he said.

He also plans to ensure the middle school creates cohesion between the elementary schools and Woodland.

There is a push for more cohesion for students as they progress through the schools. When he met with administrators at Woodland, the discussion focused on what can be done to help bridge the coherence to ensure students are college and career ready.

“Our (Long River) teachers have a big job to do to get them ready for high school,” he said.

With the new school year starting on Monday, Muharem is ready for the next chapter in his career.

“I feel really good about where we are. I feel really good about our staff. I feel really good about our new hires. They’re excited to get the year started and I think we’re going to see some great things from our students and our faculty here at Long River,” he said.