WEST ORANGE, NJ — After eight years at the helm of Gregory Elementary School, Principal Michele Thompson is retiring and handing her office over to Makeida Estupinan. Officially approved at the July 16 West Orange Board of Education meeting, Estupinan is taking over as principal after three years as the assistant principal at Gregory.
“Overall it’s been great, this is definitely a different experience,” Estupinan, who came to West Orange after 10 years as a teacher and administrator in Paterson, said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Aug. 26. “The Gregory community is more suburban and it was a whole new way of working with parents.”
As a literacy supervisor in Paterson, Estupinan worked in multiple schools and buildings. At Gregory, she has been able to have a bigger presence in the single building, focusing on fostering relationships with teachers and students on a daily basis.
To get ready for the first day of school on Sept. 6, Estupinan has been working during the summer to get to know the parents and students with whom she will be spending up to six years as they make their way through Gregory.
“It comes with a lot more responsibility,” she said. “I’ve been working over the summer to transition. I want to work on the culture and the climate of the school. We have a lot of new teachers and staff members, so I want to establish the new vision that we have. I also want to work with the PTA and bridge the gap between their vision and ours.”
The biggest shift in going from assistant principal to principal, Estupinan said, is that the amount of time she will now spend with students will increase since the principal is often in larger schoolwide settings.
“You’re spending time with kids in unstructured environments like recess and assemblies” as principal, she said. “I’ll know all of their names. That is really the big shift.”
Estupinan also said she looks forward to focusing on the school’s new staff members. Gregory will have several new staff members this September, with seven new teachers and one administrator joining the school.
“This is not the norm; that’s a lot for one year,” Estupinan said. “But it’s a great thing. It goes with the new beginning. It’s a shift that makes sense; we can all start together.”
The first day of school is getting closer, and to relieve the stress of the new school year for both parents and students, Estupinan is hosting an ice cream social on Tuesday, Sept. 4, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Gregory. The evening will give families a chance to get to know her and connect with one another as well.
“Most of them know me, but I want to work with the PTA especially,” she said. “The purpose is to alleviate some of the stress from the first day of school. I’m hoping kids will be able to come and meet the teachers and kids in their class. The parents can also make connections with other parents.”
At the July 16 BOE meeting, Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky described the hiring process for Gregory’s principal, saying that there were large groups of parents, teachers and district administrators involved in the process.
“It was a long process — thank you very much for your service and help in this,” Rutzky said. “We had three really intense rounds; the second round had about 17 or 18 people and third round had more.
“We’re all here to support you and help you,” Rutzky told Estupinan. “Congratulations and we’re really happy you’re in the position.”
Rutzky also thanked Thompson for her work at Gregory at the meeting, sentiments that Estupinan echoed.
“She had eight years of running it and doing a wonderful job,” Estupinan said of her predecessor. “I want to continue her management style — she had it running as a well-oiled machine. She was a great mentor. She taught me about running a building and I learned about working with parents, when my focus was mostly on curriculum.”
In Paterson, Estupinan taught middle school, but she now prefers working with the younger students in elementary school, and Gregory has been the perfect place for her to do so.
“You forget about everything going on — they are your main focus,” Estupinan said. “You want to help them love learning. And they surprise you every day; they bring you so much joy. A second grader will ask, ‘What’s your second-favorite reptile?’ and I find myself having a conversation about it.”
She also likes being able to watch students grow from kindergarten through fifth grade. By spending so much time with students, Estupinan can get to know them and their families. Going into her first year as a principal, that’s one of her goals.
“I like having them for six years,” she said. “We can help them from year to year and we can get to know their families. I’m excited. I want to make this a great new year for everyone at Gregory.”