FORTVILLE — In 1984, freshly graduated from Ball State University with his teaching license and a secondary license in business education, Bernie Campbell was looking for a spot to hang his degree and start sharing his knowledge with future generations.
Just two months out of school, he landed a job at Mt. Vernon High School.
“My first day in class in late August … is something I’ll never forget; how excited I was to have my own class,” Campbell said.
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It was the start of a more-than-30-year career in education, one Campbell recently announced will come to a close with his retirement at the end of this school year.
His departure will leave big shoes to fill, but with the advance notice, there’s ample time to look for the best possible replacement, said Shane Robbins, superintendent at Mt. Vernon Community School Corp.
“He let me know early on so we could start thinking what the next steps will be in terms of leadership at the high school.”
During his time at Mt. Vernon, Campbell has served as teacher, coach, vice principal and principal. Also during that time, the district has changed in profound ways.
Campbell said the area has morphed from a farming community to more of a “quasi-suburban school district.” And the school has grown 40 percent from when he started, from about 700 students to more than 1,200.
While it hasn’t always been easy, the school adapted to the change, and most people have embraced it, he said.
“It’s been very rewarding to see the growth and how far we’ve come appreciating the various cultures,” he said.
Campbell said he is proud of several other accomplishments. These range from the quality of instructors he’s hired during his time as principal and the fact “we have been a Four-Star school and an A (graded) school the past three years,” citing two state measures of school performance.
He said he’s also proud of the leadership that will remain after he leaves. He said his assistant principals and athletic director are top-notch, and that he hopes whoever succeeds him carries on what he sees as a tradition of stability at the school.
During financial challenges the district faced around the time he started as principal (2009-10), the corporation kept its focus on its main mission, to prepare young learners for the future, he said.
Through that period of staff cuts and higher-than-normal turnover, the district held steady at the top, as it had for decades, providing relative calm through the tumult, he said.
But those financial straits led to one of the three most difficult parts of his job — having to tell people their jobs were eliminated. In his first year, he was forced to cut 20 percent of his staff.
The two other really tough parts of his job have been having to expel students and having to inform students about a death of one of their peers, he said.
None of these difficulties on its own led to his decision to retire at the end of this year, when he will be 55. He said the decision resulted from the combination of stresses of being principal, which he said is a job where one is either working or on-call 24/7; health complications involving arthritis; as well as the death of several people he knew who were about his age.
“I’m just ready for a change,” he said.
Former Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. Superintendent Bill Riggs praised Campbell as a sincere, competent and compassionate leader.
“The kids absolutely love him because he’s a genuine person,” said Riggs, who worked with Campbell for 21 years before retiring last year. “He has always been sensitive to the needs of kids.”
He said Campbell led the school to greater academic achievement, while building a loyal staff and a community that trusted him, in part because he was honest with them.
People who worked for Campbell also praised him, not only for how he led but for how he taught them to lead.
“He’s shown me how someone can be the boss without losing sight of his employees as people,” said Joe Freeman, who has taught at Mt. Vernon for 36 years.
“Bernie always makes decisions based on what is best for students,” added Brooke Tharp, who worked for Campbell as a special education teacher and is now assistant principal at Mt. Vernon Middle School. “His expectations for students are high, and he truly cares about student success.”
Robbins said he hopes to find someone as committed to the Mt. Vernon school community as Campbell.
He said the high school principal position is an important one in the district, partly because about a third of the district’s students and staff are in that building but also because things such as ISTEP scores and graduation rates give the school a high level of exposure.
He said he expects to have many applicants because the high school has a lot to offer, including recently remodeled facilities and a newly instituted one-to-one computer-based instructional environment, where all students have their own computers.
He said there is internal interest in the position, but that “it’s in the best interest of the district to do a comprehensive search. You never know who’ll apply.”
By the numbers
32 — number of years Bernie Campbell will complete at Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. (10 as a teacher, 15 as vice principal and seven as principal)
1,000 — approximate number of students Campbell taught as a teacher
40 — approximate number of teachers Campbell hired while principal
1,800 — approximate number of students who graduated while he was principal
7,000 — approximate number of students who have graduated since he started teaching at Mt. Vernon