When Jennifer Mills walks the halls at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School (HHSS), she still reminisces about the good times she had there as a student in the late 1990s.

Now, 23 years on from her graduation, the Red Hawks alumni is trying to recreate the same supportive environment and high level of in-class and extracurricular programming that allowed her to thrive.

Mills was named new principal at HHSS in November, replacing Chris Boulay, who has moved on to a new management role within Trillium Lakelands District School Board’s (TLDSB) human resources department. This is Mills’ first principal posting, after spending almost three years as a vice principal at Haliburton County’s high school.

“I am honoured and excited to begin my principal journey at HHSS,” Mills told The Highlander. “Being able to learn from Chris these past few years, and to be mentored by him, allowed me to be ready to step into this new position… I am privileged that I get to work at HHSS with amazing staff and students every day.”

Mills has been with TLDSB for over 15 years, starting out as a supply teacher at several elementary and secondary schools across the district. Her first permanent posting was at Archie Stouffer Elementary School (ASES) in Minden, where she taught Grades 7 and 8. After leaving ASES, Mills became an instructional coach, working with Highlands’ educators and students.

While she enjoyed that work, Mills yearned for more. She had always dreamt of following in her mother, Debbie Wales’, footsteps and becoming part of the teaching fabric at HHSS.

“To me, this has felt like coming home,” she said.

There have been some major day-to-day changes for Mills since assuming her new role, but the same core values remain.

“The part I love most about my job is still at the heart of it – interacting with and helping students, while trying to make a positive difference in their school experience. I get to work alongside educators that care for students and find ways every day to engage, motivate and encourage our youth to be successful in their education pathway.

“The HHSS staff want what is best for students and works endlessly to achieve that. The interactions I have with students make me realize why I love the work I get to do. Whether it’s just a ‘hello’ or a smile in the hallway, a chat about making good choices, or a more in-depth conversation about supports a student needs to achieve their goals… I’m grateful to be a small part of the team that nurtures the growth and development of our students.”

Another perk of this transition, Mills said, is that Martin Gage, a popular former teacher at HHSS, has returned to the school as a vice principal.

The past few years have been a challenging time for most students, with regular school activities disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mills said it’s important that teachers, administrators, and support staff take an active role in helping youth transition back to life inside the classroom.

“We know coming out of COVID that there are different needs the students have, both around well-being and academics. We are working on ways to re-engage students who are struggling to be in a classroom setting, while still holding high expectations and standards for achievement,” Mills said.

“When I see that things we are doing are making a difference in a student’s life, that is the rewarding part. We, as educators, are not only teaching subjects, but we are also teaching students the skills they need to be successful in school and life. Every student is unique and comes with their own strengths and struggles,” she added. “It’s our job as a staff to help them develop into successful, capable, and kind people.”