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Draper Journal

A piece of Channing Hall’s history leaves as school embraces new chapter

Aug 05, 2019 04:02PM ● By Julie Slama

Channing Hall’s first and only head of school Heather Shepherd is stepping down after 13 years — and taking her dog, Truman, who regularly roamed the charter school’s halls the past four years. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Channing Hall is a teenager, having opened 13 years ago. The 8,500 students who have attended the Draper charter school since it opened have only known one head of school — Heather Shepherd — until now. 

Shepherd will be the principal and chief administrative officer of Salt Lake Arts Academy, a charter school for 400 middle years students in downtown Salt Lake City. 

Coming to Channing Hall as head of school after a national search was conducted will be Diane Wirth, who has 34 years of educational experience in both teaching and administration.

Students at both schools have been part of the transition. Wirth came from northern Indiana to Channing Hall twice in May to meet the community and attend the school’s annual fun run, and Shepherd has visited her new school monthly since announcing last fall she was leaving.

However, Shepherd said leaving Channing Hall hadn’t hit — even days before she carried the last box out on June 18.

“It was very hard to say goodbye to the students (on the last day of school),” Shepherd said. “But it just seems like it’s for the summer, not that it was it.”

Shepherd applied last year for the new position seeing it as a change and a new challenge, knowing that she’d still be happy to remain at Channing Hall. 

“Either way, it was a winning outcome. I love Channing Hall. It was hard when we started. I was working out of an office, the school wasn’t done, and I was hiring teachers I hadn’t seen teach before. We had to delay school for a week until we could allow students into the building to start school. But I loved the IB (international baccalaureate) philosophy, the inquiry-based learning for students. It’s a strong academic environment with the teachers inspiring the students who are motivated to learn and to problem solve,” she said, adding that some faculty she hired that first year still are teaching at the school.

That welcoming, supportive environment is one thing that appealed to Heather Fehrenbach, who put her son in the school lottery a dozen years ago.

“My oldest son got into kindergarten at Channing the second year they were open,” she said. “I have five kids and no family in the area so the Channing community quickly became ‘our people.’ I will always be grateful to Heather Shepherd for having the vision to not only build a great school, but she also understood the importance of making families feel like they are a part of the micro-community.”

That isn’t the only forte parents appreciate about Shepherd. Parent Jennifer Barrett said while Shepherd is a great leader, she also is a strong supporter for the students.

“She’s a tireless advocate for kids,” Barrett said. “At the annual fundraiser, she will ham it up, dressing like a robot, Dumbledore, however she needs to so she can support the kids. She’s great at providing what they need, like our think lab, and giving them new opportunities. And it’s not just her the kids will miss. The students love Truman; he’s just so much a part of the school.”

Truman is Shepherd’s goldendoodle who calmly roams the school, allowing students to pet him as they read in the library, or to eat breakfast with him — and Shepherd — as a reward for raising more than $100 each as part of the fun run. Shepherd and Truman have inspired students by dressing up as Thing 1 and Thing 2 or as a lion and a lion tamer.

“He’s been here four-and-one-half years and he’s one of them. Truman had his own yearbook for students to sign and at graduation, they had pictures of students when they were babies. This year, they included puppy pictures of him. The students even asked if I was leaving him when I go,” she said, adding that they have already lined up a visit.

Barrett said she appreciated working alongside Shepherd as the school business manager.

“Heather is great to work with,” she said. “She supports a team approach, but gives us freedom, flexibility and empowers us to do our job. It’s going to be hard without her; we will miss her.”

Under Shepherd, Channing Hall began in 2006, opening shortly after the two other charter schools in Draper, American Preparatory Academy in fall 2003 and Summit Academy in 2004.

According to the Utah State Board of Education, charter schools are open to any Utah student; they are tuition-free public schools that are funded by the public and accountable to the public. These schools allow students and parents an additional choice about where students attend school and the school's curricular emphasis as well as give educators the freedom to try new strategies to inspire students in innovative ways.

While Shepherd said charter schools were a “new shining thing” when Channing Hall started along with seven other charter schools that year, there are now about 140 in the state, she said, each having a different focus and demand.

“Education has become more innovative and student-centered; we’re finding solutions and many more ways to teach than just one approach as we did when I began when I was 22,” she said. “We’ve learned to become more accepting, offer different philosophies, making sure what is best for the student is being done.”

Ensuring that philosophy as well as leading a “financially solid school” are part of the accomplishments Shepherd is proud to leave as her Channing Hall legacy. 

“It’s a strong academic school where we’ve created and sustained a culture where students are accepted and want to come and learn,” she said.

That is something both Barrett and Fehrenbach want to continue as they welcome Wirth.

“Change can be good and we’ll be able to see Channing Hall with a different perspective,” Barrett said.

Shepherd, who did not sit on the search committee, supports the committee’s decision.

“Diane Wirth is a really intelligent woman who got to know the school, curriculum, teachers and students when she came out to visit,” she said. “Her biggest challenge will be coming from out of state and learning about charter schools — and learning about the culture here.”

In a letter, Wirth, who has 16 years of classroom instruction and 18 in administration, wrote to her new community, saying she believes a partnership with parents will help ensure students’ academic, social and emotional growth. 

“Building that partnership takes time, trust and communication,” she said. “I am a visible, transparent leader, who has an open-door policy, and am confident that we will create the partnership that is needed to take our students to the highest level of learning.”

Wirth, who has family in Utah and is familiar with its outdoor opportunities, including national parks, also wrote some relatable words — and students may be hoping there will be a new furry friend in their hallways.

“I also have several dogs. I rescued one of them. It started off as a foster dog, but I couldn’t let him go,” she said.

Fehrenbach said she’s looking forward to some new possibilities with the change of directors.

“I'm excited for the new insights that Mrs. Wirth will bring. My biggest hope is that she can make some innovative changes while keeping the integrity of the warm community feel,” she said.

Under Shepherd, Channing Hall has offered some pioneering opportunities, such as the ThinkLab that recently opened (see “Channing Hall students excited to explore, create in ThinkLab”).

It’s also one thing Shepherd would like to introduce at her new school.

“The school is a strong academic school with an arts foundation — dance, art, music, drama. I played violin for six years and I’m an arts person, but not an accomplished arts person. I’d like to introduce more tech or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) to the curriculum,” she said.

She may have to wait as her new school is undergoing a renovation — but at least she won’t be working in a school without phones, without tile on the floors or having a fire marshal checking out the building on the first day of school as Shepherd did 13 years ago.