GREENFIELD — Row by row, they stood: School board members, educators, community members, applauding a man who has dedicated the past 18 years to making Greenfield-Central High School a better place for students to learn.

Colleagues and friends cried as they saluted a principal they say never misses a chance to support his students in extra-curricular activities and strives to encourage each of his students to graduate, implementing dozens of programs aimed at helping students cross the high school finish line. Principal Steve Bryant is set to retire from Greenfield-Central High School at the end of this school year after 18 years as its leader.

Bryant announced his retirement this week and will leave his post when his contract ends June 30.

The longtime principal submitted his letter of retirement to Superintendent Harold Olin last January, asking his friend and colleague to hold onto the letter until the new school year started. It’s time to retire, Bryant said, but he knew if he had six months to think about his decision, he’d change his mind.

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It won’t be easy saying goodbye — the school and job have brought him much joy over the years, he said. But his wife retired from Harris Elementary last year, and the two have plans to travel. He wants to chase other professional opportunities, including supervising student teachers at the university level.

Bryant has 44 years of experience in education, and 35 of those years were spent as a principal. He worked for three other schools before moving to Greenfield-Central in 1999 when he was tapped to replace former principal Phil Boley.

Since then, Bryant’s been at the helm, initiating dozens of efforts aimed at improving learning for students, fellow educators say.

During the 2003-04 school year, Bryant oversaw the creation of the school’s Project Lead the Way program, a national organization that provides students hands-on experience in engineering and science disciplines to prepare them for college course work. At Greenfield-Central, Project Lead the Way students can enroll in the school’s engineering or bio-medical academy.

The school later launched a finance academy, for students interested in money management, and the Cougar Academy, which offers students the opportunity to earn class credits online.

This year, the school opened a new alternative school to serve students who need a different learning environment than the traditional high school classroom can provide. Bryant was pivotal in making the alternative school a reality, showing he wants students to succeed even if their educational career takes a different path, Olin said.

“His goal has always been getting students across the finish line,” Olin said. “He has the desire to try something different to reach the needs of all our students.”

Bryant said he’s tried to create a small-school atmosphere in a high school that has grown 33 percent since he became principal — this year, more than 1,500 students walk its halls.

Even outside of the classroom, Bryant shines, his colleagues say. He rarely misses school events — he’s always present to cheer for and support his students, Olin said.

He drives all over the state, sometimes attending three or four sporting games or contests in one day, Olin said. It doesn’t matter what his students’ interests are; Bryant’s there, ready to be one of their greatest cheerleaders.

Watching his students excel brings him joy, Bryant said. Encouraging them to always try their best is part of his responsibility as an educator, he said.

Though Bryant credits his successful and long career to his family and the colleagues who have supported him along the way, including guidance counselors, assistant principals and teachers, his coworkers say he’s a one-of-a-kind principal who will be sorely missed.

Kathy Dowling, a former English teacher and guidance counselor at Greenfield-Central High School who now serves on the school board, said she’s known every principal at Greenfield-Central High School since it opened more than 45 years ago, and Bryant is “simply the best.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are, he tries to help you and support you. And he’s supported every kid that’s been through that school,” she said.

He’s been blessed to work in a school corporation and community that always puts students first, Bryant said.

“I have been a high school principal for 35 years, and the last 18 have been the most enjoyable in my career,” he wrote in his retirement letter.

Working with those people, many who have become family, is what he’ll miss most come July 1.

But he won’t completely walk away from education.

A love for teaching runs deep in his family; Bryant’s son, Shane Bryant, is the principal at Weston Elementary. His daughter is a principal in Centerville.

Conversations about students, best practices and education will continue in their home even after he leaves the school hallways, and he’ll be looking for another adventure in education — helping students teachers who are just starting out.

The school corporation will spend the year celebrating Bryant’s career, Olin said. Beginning in December, they’ll launch a search for his replacement. Olin hopes to hire a new principal by the fourth quarter, and he or she would start in July. It’s going to be hard to find someone to fill the shoes Bryant is leaving behind, he said.

“Steve is irreplaceable,” Olin said. “We’re going to take our time to hire the best person out there to fill his shoes.”

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.