For the first time in nearly a decade a new principal is walking the halls of Miami High School, putting his mark on an institution with a long and storied history in the Copper Corridor.
Former assistant principal and athletic director Shawn Pietila took the reins at the beginning of the school year and is putting his own imprint on the institution as he maintains stability in the principal’s office.
His face is familiar throughout the campus that has been his workplace for the past five years, but the new position is definitely different for him.
Prior to his promotion, Pietila says his interactions with students mostly involved athletics or, as vice principal, doling out discipline to misbehaving students.
“In the past, unless a student were an athlete or sent to the office for a behavior consequence, my interactions with a student would have been minimal. I am excited to have an impact and influence on the entire student body,” Pietila says. “The cool thing is over the past four years, I spent a lot of time in the cafeteria with the junior high students specifically and got a chance to develop relationships with them. Now those seventh and eighth graders are juniors and seniors, so we’ve kind of grown up in the building together.”
While he intends to continue the school’s successful arc under the leadership of former principal Glen Lineberry, Pietila made it clear that he has his own ideas about leading the school.
Students and instructors began the 2023-24 school year with Vandal Week, featuring activities intended to give everyone a chance to get to know each other and to engender a sense of common purpose throughout the campus.
“We took students grades seven through twelve and split them up amongst all of our teachers, so there were students from all grade levels with a single teacher for the first few days of the school year,” Pietila says. “It allowed the upperclassmen to take leadership roles, model expected behaviors and teach general procedures, while also reinforcing a strong school spirit and culture.”
During Vandal Week, campus leaders also offered tours of the entire campus and used the opportunity to practice bus evacuations, fire drills and even teach the Vandal fight song during daily assemblies.
Additionally, there were contests to create posters about keeping the campus clean and an essay writing contest about “what it takes to be a Vandal.”
“It was an opportunity for teachers to connect with students who they normally wouldn’t have in their classrooms,” Pietila says. “It was also an opportunity for the junior high teachers to reconnect with some of the upperclassmen they had three or four years ago now that they’re entirely different creatures.”
Vandal Week addressed one of three goals Pietila has set for his first year as principal: maintaining continuity of successful systems already in place, increasing academic vigor, and renewing school spirit and pride.
Programs such as dual-enrollment, which allows students to earn college credits while taking high school classes, and Career and Technical Education (CTE) will remain to help give them a leg up in both academic and work situations they may encounter once they graduate.
As to academic rigor, MHS has instituted a new math curriculum and is taking a more collaborative approach to academics overall with the district-wide implementation of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID).
AVID is an in-school academic support program for grades kindergarten through twelve. The purpose of the program is to prepare students for career and college readiness and success.
“We are beyond the adjustment period from being back in the building so now it’s time to really step up,” Pietila says. “We aim to continually raise the expectations for our students and equip them with the tools needed to be successful both in their time here at MJSHS as well as with the post secondary goals they wish to pursue.”
In order to accomplish his goals, Pietila is taking advantage of the academic pieces Lineberry put in place throughout the school.
Math instructor Sreevelmurugan Vamadevan—known throughout Miami High School as “Mr. M”—was recruited in 2018 after coming to Arizona from India in 2016. Mr. M sees a lot of potential in the new curriculum and is excited about the direction MHS is going.
“We are always searching for new ideas and looking for ways to engage the students with innovative ideas,” he says.
As to the difference in leadership styles between his former principal and the new one, Mr. M says that they are “two sides of the same coin,” and Pietila is a good fit going forward in the next phase of the school’s evolution.
“The transition from Glen’s experienced leadership to Shawn’s talented, results-oriented, research-oriented approach is an exciting and dynamic shift for the school,” he says. “He’s in a system that is ready to go. Instead of running the same bus through the same road, he’s actually trying to add new roads with a new driving style. That is quite exciting.”
Longtime teacher Rayla Mills has been with the Miami Unified School District for 22 years and says she’s not finished teaching yet. Her first nine years were devoted to the teaching of social studies, but she’s now a language arts teacher and has alternated between the high school and the intermediate school on the same campus.
Mills participated in the interview process that brought Pietila to the school as vice principal and applauds his willingness to take on a “thankless job.”
“I have enough time in the system that I could retire at any time, but I didn’t want to because I respect and admire Mr. Pietila so much and want to be part of the team that helps him be successful,” Mills says. “Glen Lineberry has done so many wonderful things for this school and implemented new programs, and the kids are thriving as a result of it. It’s just a beautiful thing to observe.”
She added that Pietila was part of a cohort that achieved an administrative leadership degree from ASU that was created by Lineberry to ensure continuity in leadership in the MUSD.
MHS students are excited about the changes as well as the stability in the organization.
Both Issac Shaffer and Ann Mary Terrence are in the journalism program and also participate in dual enrollment and AP classes offered at the school.
Shaffer is a sophomore who has spent his entire school career in the MUSD system and is familiar with the administration through his journalistic efforts. He says there is a “noticeable difference” between Pietila’s and Lineberry’s leadership style and there is now more interaction between the administration and students.
“There’s a more positive vibe instead of the more bureaucratic and efficient system Mr. Lineberry had,” Shaffer says. “Vandal Week helped some of the students ease into high school, in particular the freshmen and junior high students. And I do feel that I have gotten closer to people outside of my grade.”
As to stability in the administration, Shaffer says that “having a new principal every year would be a bit of a nightmare, logistically with conflicting schedules and conflicting goals every year.
“I don’t think that would bode well for the overall long-term consistency of the programs and education system,” he says.
Terrence came to Miami from India at the age of nine and has been in the Miami school system since she has been in the U.S.
She’s involved in the culinary program through CTE, has taken several AP courses, and plans to go to the University of Arizona when she graduates. For her, the fact that students are familiar with Pietila since he has been around so long has eased the transition.
“It was weird at first, but I kind of got used to it,” Terrence says. “Things are different than before, but it’s easier than getting used to a new person.”
She also appreciates the spirit of Vandal Week and thinks it was a good start to the new school year and the beginning of Pietila’s tenure as principal.
“It’s pretty stable at this point and everything has settled down,” Terrence says. “Vandal Week was a good beginning to the school year, and a good transition. It made the school come together, and now we will be stronger.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.