“Be resilient, be responsive, and find what works.” – Robyn Taylor
Principal Robyn Taylor’s last semester started with a very broken foot in traction, a pandemic that turned school upside down while she was homebound, and a transition to homeschooling her 17-year-old daughter. So when she got the phone call that she was named Principal of the Year by the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals, she had to tell her wide-eyed daughter that the tears in her eyes were happy tears of gratitude. As a self-proclaimed optimist, Principal Taylor lives every day finding and shining light on the positive things even in this time of extreme upheavals.
“I see this era as being a transformational change for education. We are in a position where we have an opportunity to step away from an archaic instructional age that has gone on in America for 250 years and we can really embrace personalized learning that captures the strengths of the individual,” says Taylor.
An unconventional approach to education is not something new to her. Even before the pandemic, she began envisioning the idea of a staggered school schedule that would allow students the flexibility to start at different times of day and/or different days of the week to better support individual learning patterns. And on a typical (pre-pandemic) day in her school, it would not be uncommon to see students walk through the front door with a desktop computer, a lawn mower, small engine, or even a chainsaw.
Taylor is the principal of Hutchison High Career Center, a unique secondary public-school choice program in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District that currently serves 400 full-time and 160 part-time high school students. The career and technical education program allows high school students the opportunity to pursue one of five focused career clusters as their primary focus, with grade levels and activities as a secondary focus. The school has become so popular in recent years that the school district implemented a lottery system for accepting new students in order to allow a level playing field for students who apply to the school.
“Robyn Taylor is truly an outstanding principal. She is skilled at navigating community and business partnerships with entities that support the mission and vision of Hutchison High School, our district’s comprehensive career technical education center,” says Fairbanks North Star Borough Superintendent Dr. Karen Gaborik. “She is also committed to ensuring practices that promote inclusion; diversity and equity are at the core of student enrollment procedures and course offerings at Hutchison.”
Among many successful endeavors, including a campaign to greet each student at the front door every morning and another of sending each student hand-written notes of appreciation, Principal Taylor has implemented the Work Readiness Program.
“As a former small business owner and business education teacher I have always placed significant value in preparing students to enter the workforce and make effective transitions from school-to-school, school-to-work, or work-to-school. Our school staff worked through an iterative 4-year process to develop a Workplace Readiness Score document that reports employability scores at the end of each quarter for a student to voluntarily submit to a potential employer,” Taylor said.
The overall score is pulled directly from their Power School grading system and calculates Workplace Readiness scores based on a student’s attendance, timeliness, missing and late work.
Just launched in 2019/2020, the program has already garnered strong support both from students using their Workplace Readiness score for job applications and employers pursuing Hutchison students for hire. On the first day scores were released two students asked for extra copies of their scores to include in job applications.
Taylor grew up in a large family–owned business in Pocatello, Idaho that was one of the largest small business employers in the area managing five corporate entities. Her mother was the chair of Idaho State University’s College of Education program teaching CTE teachers how to teach. She had the opportunity to take over one of the businesses after a stint teaching and left Alaska to take it, but quickly learned it was not what she wanted.
“My driver was to be in education and see students succeed,” said Principal Taylor who has a Bachelor of Business Administration, a Master of Education and an Educational Leadership Superintendent’s Certification.
Part of that, she says, is helping students realize they have to learn to depend on themselves and to find ways to make things work for them.
Alden Jerome, a graduate of Hutchison High School who served as the youngest Fairbanks Board of Education member, is one of those students. “The adults at Hutchison High School know students very well. As a graduate, I feel like I will have life-long friends in my former teachers. The culture led by Ms. Taylor can be summed up in a statement that those familiar with Ms. Taylor have heard often, ‘I love you in a friendly and school appropriate way,’” says Jerome.
Her message to current students as they navigate the uncertainties of the year ahead?
“Flexibility is key,” she says. “Be resilient, be responsive and find what works.”