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An Outstanding Principal

Proving that strong and compassionate leadership can make a difference in Vancouver's schools, Dave Derpak, Principal of Vancouver Technical Secondary has been recognized by The Learning Partnership as one of Canada's outstanding Principals for 2010.

Derpak is among 32 principals from across Canada to win the award from the national not-for-profit organization. The award recognizes principals who have made a difference in the lives of their students and their communities.

"It was an honour to be nominated for this award, and I was shocked and surprised to win," Derpak said. "Anytime you receive an award like this, I have to recognize the vice principals I work with - Hank Lyth and Brent Schieman - and all the school office and school staff. With their help we have been able to create a positive and respectful school climate for our students."

Derpak has been principal at Vancouver Technical for seven years. The inner-city school is one of the most ethnically diverse in Canada with 1,680 students speaking more than 50 languages at home.

As a recipient of the award, Derpak attended an executive leadership program at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto from Feb 21-25. "I'll have the opportunity to network with principals from across Canada and share ideas and concerns," he said before attending.

With 28 years in the education field, first as a teacher, then as a vice principal and now as a principal, Derpak has always challenged himself to make positive change. "When I entered the education field my hope was to make as big an impact in education as I could," he said.

Derpak admits that he applied to be the principal at Vancouver Technical, not once, but three times. "My goal and dream was to serve this community and to be the principal at Van Tech," he said.

The school, located near Broadway and Nanaimo St. in the city's east side is where Derpak's family has roots. Derpak's mother went to Vancouver Technical in the 1940s, while his father went to Britannia Secondary. They and all their close friends attended Beaconsfield Elementary. His grandfather William, who ran to be a Member of Parliament in 1944 was also from the area.

From his first day at Vancouver Technical, Derpak has taken a tactical approach to his work. "The first action I took was to make a diagnostic evaluation of the school. I met with groups of teachers and students to learn about the most urgent issues and concerns they faced. I read all I could about the school and examined as much data as was available," he said.

During his first year at the school Derpak focused on four main goals: to improve attendance; lower latecomers to classes; increase scholarships; and create a positive school climate. He also worked to reduce the vandalism of school property.

To improve school attendance rates Derpak and his staff researched how secondary school attendance affected future academic goals and adult behaviour. He found that truancy and lates in school resulted in adults older than 25: earning less money; having increased interactions with the law; holding jobs for a shorter time; and other negative short and long term effects. One of the main short term side effects of this behavior were lower grades in school.

One simple, but powerful way that Derpak and his VPs model good behaviour is by standing in the halls during class changes to engage with students. "Along with our School Liaison Officers, our presence shows our students that we care about where they are going and what they are doing," he said.

Derpak is proud of the fact that attendance rates are now at about 97 per cent with Aboriginal attendances rates gaining 20 per cent over the past five years to stand at 93 per cent. Overall students are getting to class on time with 43, 000 lates seven years ago and less than 23,000 this year. Missed classes have fallen from an average of 22,000 a year to a record year last year of only 7,000 missed classes (with close to 1,700 students).

'Building a school with bricks of caring,' is a phrase which Derpak likes to use.

"Ironically, our school endured a six-year seismic upgrade. The resiliency our students and staff showed while dealing with noise, dust and interruptions demonstrates our strength and sense of purpose. I have high expectations from our students. If a window is broken in our school, I stop the whole school and bring it to their attention," Derpak said. "We have seen vandalism drop from over $22, 000 a year to around $7,000 with graffiti inside the building virtually eliminated."

To achieve the goal of academic success for his students the school has developed a peer mentorship scholarship program to direct some attention to the top learners in the school and further support the academic work done by classroom teachers. Throughout the year the top grade 10-12 students and the top grade 7 students from 11 feeder schools meet to support each other. Derpak reports that while Provincial examinations were mandatory he saw a gain of 65 per cent in provincial scholarships and had one Rhodes Scholarship in 2004.

For the remainder of this school year, Derpak's attention is focused on lowering the fear and apprehension that will be felt by Grade 7 students entering the school in September. "I'll attend local parent meetings in our family of schools and we'll have staff visit each classroom of our grade 7 students in addition to holding a series of family meetings at our school," said Derpak.

Vancouver Technical also has a unique articulation program called Base - Building a Safer Environment. During the school year they host visits by 380 Grade 7 students from the 11 neighbouring elementary schools in the area. They offer a full day program twice a year called the 'Mixer'. "We bring them into the school and help them to feel safe," said Derpak. Changing schools at this difficult age can be very stressful to young students at 12 and 13 years of age." Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House staff and the community school team assist with the program.

"Our teachers also work to collect data about the Grade 7 students from the teachers at the elementary schools. This information allows our teachers to become familiar with their new students before they arrive in September," said Derpak. "Grade 7 teachers know so much about their students and we want to ensure that our teams have that information to be able to build on."

"It works! Over the past two years we have seen our honour roll numbers in Grade 8 grow to 50 and 55 per cent form 30 per cent a few years ago. Suspensions form school seven years ago numbered 77 a year, this year we have suspended less than 10 students," said Derpak.

As Derpak continues his work at Vancouver Technical Secondary he is sure to focus on improving the school climate and academic success of all his students.

The Vancouver School Board congratulates Dave Derpak on his recognition as one of Canada's outstanding Principals for 2010.

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