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Rough Economic Climate Put Peter Renwick on the Right Career Path

The WHS Principal took an alternate route to get to where he is today. And he's happy he did.

When Peter Renwick talks… people listen.

And it's not because he happened to begin his career for the company that coined the familiar slogan …E.F. Hutton.

 It's because he is so passionate, positive and proud of his role as principal of one of the top high schools in the state ...Westfield High School. And he can't say it enough.

"I am grateful each and every day to be able to come into this building and feel like I can have an impact on over 1800 students," he said. "We have an incredibly talented, dedicated and caring staff."

Renwick, 45, is pleased with what he's accomplished so far in his two years at WHS.

"Under my leadership we have formulated a mission and a vision for education. We have a mission statement that was created last year collaboratively," he said proudly. "We're very proud of the mission we've come up with as a community."

"We're bringing the school together around a common vision."

But Renwick's vision for his own career did not initially involve a school.

The New Jersey native graduated from Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio with a degree in business finance.

"I got a job right away as a stock broker for E.F. Hutton and I thought I was set. That's what I went to school for and it was a plum position." When he graduated, the market was "strong."

But his dream literally came crashing down with the stock market soon after he started.  "It was within months of my hire that the market crashed" in 1987.

Renwick, who was living in Ohio at the time, had also worked for Merrill Lynch. But eventually he had to move back home to Cedar Grove.  "I had no intention of teaching," he said. "I needed income so I started as a substitute teacher."

The first class he taught was at Montclair High School. "There were a couple of horrible young ladies that made it their job that day to give me a hard time," he recalled. "I remember going back after that first day saying 'I could dig ditches all day and be happier.'"

His decision to try one more time changed the course of his career.

"I went back …and subbed for a year," he said. "I developed a good reputation. I ended up having some long term sub positions to where the following year I was asked to start the school year at MHS for a teacher they knew would be out at least a month. I met the kids, learned to do some lesson planning …it was a history class."

He said that experience was life-altering. "I fell in love with teaching and history."

His department chair approached him shortly after and said "this is what you should be doing," said Renwick. So he took the state alternate route teacher certification program and became a social studies teacher at MHS for ten years.

During that time, he became advisor for a slew of student activities, including hiking club, climbing club, student coalition, peer leadership and the Black Student Union.

All along, he had a mentor who was a great influence, then assistant principal at MHS Bruce Dabney.

"He sat me down and said 'you are talented, you have a great rapport with the kids. You're the kind of person we need in this administration."

Renwick said being an administrator had never crossed his mind. "He was the first administrator that I worked with, who I respected … a wonderful example. He became and remains a mentor to me to this day."

He took his boss's words to heart, although it was not an easy decision.

"I loved the classroom. It was a very hard decision for me to move out of the classroom," he said. "my frustration was I had so many ideas for having a larger impact in a school and didn't' have the power or authority to manifest them."

Renwick said those big ideas were the "impetus" for him to become an administrator.

So he pursued his masters degree at Montclair State University in administration and supervision. After he completed an internship, he said, MHS created a fifth administrative position for him as the assistant principal in charge of student activities and athletics.

Halfway through his first year in the position, his mentor had to leave and he took on a second position for the year, assistant principal for the Ninth Grade Academy, a small learning community within MHS funded through a grant. 

"I thought I would remain (at MHS). I thought I would have that wonderful story of 'I started as a sub and eventually became principal of the high school," said Renwick. "And that was my aspiration but it didn't work out."

After five years in the assistant principal's role, Renwick felt ready to move into a principal-ship. He first explored his options in Montclair. "I really talked with a number of mentors about my desire to become a principal," he said. "I felt like I had gained enough experience. I spoke with my superintendent in Montclair about opportunities (there) and there weren't any."

That's when timing came into play.

Dennis Fyffe had been serving as interim principal of WHS for two years, following the retirement of Robert Petix who held the position for 26 years prior.

There were more than 40 applicants for the job.

"I'll always remember the interview process," he said. "I think that Westfield does an outstanding job. I was thrilled to be offered the position."

He said he knew he was fortunate because both Montclair and Westfield were "great districts."

"I was excited to make the move to be the principal of one of the finest high schools in the state and the country," Renwick recalled.   "I was extremely honored to be asked to lead this incredible school."

Renwick said he knew of Westfield's great reputation, but was blown away by the "level of dedication, professionalism and talent" of the staff.

"I have a tremendous respect for teachers," he said. "To me that's where the rubber hits the road, that's where the learning takes place."

He said the teachers at WHS follow his own philosophy. "The teachers are committed to intellectual and academic growth of their students and they're also concerned about the overall wellness" of students, he said. "A big point of emphasis for me is social and emotional learning … recognizing the 'whole child' and teaching to the 'whole child.'"

He said instilling this philosophy is one of his proudest accomplishments.

"We continue to have the wellness objective that recognizes each and every student's abilities and strengths. We build character not only through the curriculum but other aspect of the school, arts, drama," he said, adding if they take advantage, "students are very well rounded when they leave."

Westfield's stellar reputation in athletics, highlighted this year with the ShopRite/NJSIAA Cup for best athletics in state among all Group 4 teams, is something that also makes the principal proud. "So many of the life skills come from athletics," he said.

Renwick said he's also proud of curriculum improvements over the last two years. "We've made great strides in improving our curriculum," he said, referring to membership in the NJ High School Redesign Consortium a project of assessment expert Dr. Grant Wiggins to instill best practice in high schools statewide. 

Renwick said the position has helped him grow personally and professionally. "I think I'm someone that's interested in growing every day," he said. "There's an opportunity to learn from everyone that's here."

He said his own high school experience wasn't the "greatest" and he often shares that fact with students so they know he can relate to their challenges.

"I wasn't student council president, the star athlete. It helped me better understand the high school experience for the majority of students rather than those who rise right to the top," who, he stressed, are also valued.

He said while college was much more positive for him, as captain of his lacrosse team and a fraternity member, there are still "a lot of struggles that I empathize with students"

Renwick said his life has since been extremely "blessed" with his wife of ten years Lisa, his "soul mate and partner," and his two children Emma Rose, 7, and Matthew Douglas, 5.

He proudly speaks of strong sense of spirituality, waking up daily before dawn to meditate, practice yoga and read.

And over the years since he's left the classroom, he's tried to instill his own love for spirituality into the classroom by teaching an occasional meditation class.

He said he enjoys knowing he can make a difference in students' lives.  At the annual Project Graduation Bash in June he sits down with students and has them sign his own yearbook to remember how he has connected with them.

His personal goal, he said, is to "continue to grow in my ability to make a difference."

"I felt that I was able to do that in the classroom, I did it as an assistant principal," he said. "To have that power to shape the culture of a building, I want our school to represent a culture of respect and pride. We have so much to be proud of."

As a fairly new principal, Renwick said he knows he still has "a lot to learn" but he's proud of how he utilizes his resources and is thankful for the support he's gotten. "I'll always use what I've learned to improve WHS and ultimately the interest of every student here."

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