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New principal looks to advance historic Reynolds

50fa0991220a1.imageWalking through the halls of R.J. Reynolds High School is a study in two worlds.

Digital photography projects line 90-year-old walls; 21st-century students sit in 20th-century classrooms.

Reynolds, which has an arts magnet program, turned 90 this week. The significance and challenge of that milestone hasn’t been lost on the school’s new principal, Patrick Olsen.

Olsen seems to enjoy the building’s historic quirks, like underground tunnels and unused fourth floors.

“I’m hoping to get up there Friday,” Olsen said of the floor he hadn’t even visited yet.

On a quick walking tour of the piecemeal campus at 301 N. Hawthorne Rd. – cafeteria and a few classrooms out front; satellite classrooms off to one side; auditorium in back – Olsen recounts the history that he’s still learning just a few months into the job.

“At one time, this was the most high-tech building in North Carolina,” Olsen said.

But a lot has changed in 90 years and Reynolds’ age – the very thing that makes it unique – also poses significant challenges for a new administrator with an eye toward modern technologies.

“I’d like to make sure we’re keeping up with technological times,” Olsen said. “We need a plan to upgrade technology … that allows teachers the ability to teach 21st-century skills.”

That’s one of Olsen’s first priorities in his new job. Another, continuing the Reynolds tradition of heavily involved parents and alumni, could help him with the first.

Community support, Olsen said, will be key in overcoming challenges at Reynolds.

He’ll have his first real chance to interact with some of those community supporters today, when the Reynolds High School alumni association is hosting a “Meet the Principal” event. Association President Harry Corpening said former Reynolds students are invited for a chance to connect with Olsen in the school’s auditorium from 10 a.m. to noon.

Traditionally strong support has been somewhat fractured as of late, as the school and some residents of the surrounding community are clashing over plans for a new football stadium to be built on school property if a private fund-raising effort succeeds. Reynolds’ team plays now at a stadium about five miles away. Many neighborhood residents oppose the stadium and its potential impact on nearby Hanes Park. Olsen said it was tough to be tossed into the middle of that tussle, but he supports his “team” of teachers and students.

“The goal is to get the students to achieve at the highest point possible,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

The confidence that comes with experience – Olsen spent 11 years as a principal in Michigan – was just what Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools administrators were looking for.

“He brings a lot of principal experience to the table,” said Carol Montague-Davis, assistant superintendent for secondary schools. “We were looking for a veteran principal … to go into Reynolds.”

Montague-Davis said finding an experienced leader was key when looking to replace former Principal Art Paschal, who retired in June. Reynolds is a large school with many facets to look after – from a large and diverse student body to highly involved parents and an active alumni association.

The district approved Olsen’s hire in August; he began the next month.

Olsen’s first few weeks were a trial by fire. While Olsen sat in orientation during his first day with the school system, his wife, Karen, was searching for somewhere for him to live.

He moved to Winston-Salem ahead of the rest of his family. He said Karen Olsen and the couple’s youngest daughter Kari, 13, are looking to move out after Kari finishes school in the spring. In the meantime, Karen Olsen is looking for work in the Winston-Salem area and working on selling the family’s Michigan home. Another daughter, Brianna, will start college in the fall and is looking at schools in the area. The Olsens’ son, 20-year-old Tyler, will stay in Michigan.

“Just to get to this point has been a real challenge,” Patrick Olsen said.

Olsen’s not totally alone in his temporary home, though. He brought along Macie, one of the family’s dogs. Olsen said the well-behaved Biewer, a kind of German terrier, has made a great companion while he waits for the rest of the family to join him.

Olsen stays connected with his wife and children through frequent phone calls and more advance technologies like video-chatting and video sharing.

Ultimately, Olsen said, he thinks the area will be a good fit for him and his family. A self-proclaimed adventure-lover, Olsen said the family – who love to camp – will take advantage of their new proximity to both mountains and beaches. And he’ll have plenty of good weather for riding his motorcycle.

Olsen came to Reynolds from Richmond, Mich., where he served 11 years as principal at Richmond High School. While the school systems and student-body are quite different – Richmond is a small bedroom community in the suburbs of Detroit – Olsen said his job really hasn’t changed that much.

“Kids are kids,” he said.

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