Peter Hartnack hadn’t even begun his second semester as the new principal at River School in Napa when he got the call.
One of his students had been arrested during the school’s winter break. Even worse, police said that the 14-year-old middle school student had been in the early planning stages of a Columbine High School-style attack, possibly at River School or Vintage High School.
“I was definitely surprised,” said Hartnack. “We’re a small school,” he said. It wasn’t a random stranger that made the threat. It was one of their own.
Facing such a threat was certainly not what Hartnack was expecting when he took the principal job in July.
Hartnack came to River School after working as assistant principal for student services at Napa High School since 2015.
He replaces former River School Principal Celeste Akiu, who accepted a principal job in Honolulu.
Hartnack began his NVUSD career in 2008 as a history teacher at Napa High, before transitioning to a role as district coordinator and then spending three years as a teacher on special assignment at Vintage High School.
He loved working at Vintage and Napa high schools, but “I was ready for a new challenge,” said Hartnack, who is 36.
The new principal said he was drawn to River School for many reasons.
Other teachers that he respected had positive things to say about the school and its culture.
In addition, the school’s focus on character and the 4 R’s (responsibility, respect, resourcefulness and responsiveness) “align well with my own beliefs,” he said.
Plus, in his high school jobs, he saw the kind of students that were coming out of River School — students “that have a really strong sense of self, are willing to ask questions and push back.”
Hartnack describes his leadership style as open, transparent, fair, honest and supportive. In addition, modeling or “walking the walk,” is “critically important,” he said.
He also knew the school would be moving to the former Salvador Elementary School campus in north Napa.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge,” said Hartnack. “I felt like it would be a good fit.”
Why middle schoolers?
Hartnack said one common question he gets about his new job is why he likes working with middle school kids.
Because “I’m just as weird and quirky as they are,” he said with a laugh.
Middle school students have good energy, he said. “The kids are so honest. It’s refreshing.”
If you are patient “and if you (don’t) take things personally then it’s great.”
And while middle school students may act like they don’t listen, they will, he said. “Not always in the moment. But long term they will.”
Hartnack said he likes knowing that he can make a difference.
“It’s important to me to know that what I’m putting out there is having an impact in some way.”
A different kind of middle school
Hartnack takes the helm of a unique school. Napa Valley Unified School District’s only charter middle school was established in 1995.
It has 391 students, less than the other NVUSD middle schools. Because of its popularity, River School admits students by lottery.
According to the school website, River School envisions its students as self-actualized, independent learners.
“We want our students to have a strong sense of self – self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-reliant – who take responsibility for their lives, instead of blaming others, making excuses, or justifying self; and who contribute to their families, communities, and planet.”
The school aims to educate its sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students to be “responsible, respectful self-motivated learners who make positive contributions to their communities.”
Hartnack said his most important tasks include the move to the new site on Salvador Avenue, along with a subsequent increase in the number of students enrolled, and an upcoming charter renewal.
The school will take over the former Salvador Elementary school campus on Salvador Avenue. Salvador School recently merged with El Centro to create Willow Elementary at the El Centro location.
The NVUSD will add six new buildings, a track, remodel the original historic Salvador school building and refurbish two existing buildings.
River School has shared a campus with Harvest Middle School for many years, so “having our own space is something people are looking forward to,” the principal said.
The school was supposed to relocate by this August, but the campus won’t be ready in time. The current plan is to move over winter break and open on Salvador Avenue in January 2020.
“It’s not ideal,” said Hartnack, “but I’m a realist.” He doesn’t control the construction. “The only thing I can do is communicate why and answer questions.”
The school currently has about 128 students per grade. Starting with the sixth grade class of 2019-2020, enrollment will increase to 180 per grade.
River’s new campus will eventually include a total of 540 students.
After the January school threat, and Hartnack was assured that there was no remaining danger to the school, the principal said he focused on reassuring and communicating with the school community.
Being open and transparent “is the best way to deal with challenging circumstances,” he said.
Months later, Hartnack said he does not know the whole story of the threat, and does not expect to.
“I’m not privy to evidence that’s been found or not found.”
While the student did not follow through on the threat, “It was hard for teachers and students to talk about it and process it.”
Several things have changed at River School since then.
First, a third day was added to a school counselor’s schedule on campus.
The school also reviewed emergency plans.
“We revised some of our ‘run, fight, hide’ training,” Hartnack said. Teachers had explicit conversations with their classes about that safety plan.
The school camera system was also updated, he said.
It’s notable that River students who knew of the threat were able to tell their families and the police, said Hartnack.
Despite the fact that the threat caused a tremendous amount of disruption and emotion, “I’m really proud of the way our kids responded and parents responded.”
“I do know that the students here feel safe here,” he said. “They also have a tremendous amount of empathy for that student. And that gives me a lot of hope in this generation.”
Hartnack said he couldn’t comment on where that student is now.
Regardless, “I hope the young man gets support and help and whatever he needs.”
As his first year inches closer to an end, Hartnack said he feels good about his work as a first-time principal.
“It’s not been a year without challenges,” he said. But, “I signed up to lead River School and all that comes with the running of a middle school.”
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