Principal Chuck Puga keeps up a consistent presence in Smoky Hill High School's classrooms and hallways, making sure not to fall out of touch with what everyday life is like for his students.
“I'm always around,” Puga says.
And sometimes, he brings his dog along.
“The great thing about Mr. Puga is, no matter what classes you're taking or how involved you are — it doesn't matter if you're valedictorian or if the first time you interact with something at Smoky is graduation — he makes himself available to students,” said Manar Jeelani, student body vice president at Smoky Hill.
Jeelani and Elishevlyne Eliason, student body president, were among those who assembled on Jan. 14 to congratulate Puga for winning the 2020 Colorado High School Principal of the Year award. The award was announced last May, but COVID-19 concerns prevented an award presentation, so school officials surprised Puga with a celebration eight months later.
“I had no idea that this was going to happen today,” said Puga, who has served as principal at Smoky, part of the Cherry Creek School District, for roughly the last six years. Before, he led Ponderosa High School as principal for nine years, part of his 26 years with Douglas County School District. All told, this is his 32nd year in public education.
Integral to his leadership style is being accessible, a trait that “builds trust in what we do,” Puga said.
His advice for those who hope to become school leaders: “Work on building relationships first because when you do that, you can work together to reach goals on both sides,” Puga said. “Being a teacher, being in education, is about relationships.”
Lately, Puga is especially proud of how his school is working toward greater equity, trying to provide opportunities “for every kid.”
“We're trying to understand who's in our building” and understand their background and diversity, Puga said. “Whether it be academically, athletically (or) social-emotionally.”
But his favorite part of life at Smoky is simple: “We have a great community, a close community, great kids,” Puga said.
He lamented that students' positive endeavors go “underreported” because they aren't as eye-catching as when something goes wrong, he said.
“It's amazing the things that kids do that they don't get recognized for,” Puga added.
From her position in student government, Eliason has seen a disconnect between school administration and the student body, but Puga helps bridge that gap, Eliason said, adding that students at Smoky don't have to fear backlash about proposing ideas or speaking out about issues.
At some schools, administration can seem like a “mythical” creature — distant and difficult to work with, Jeelani said.
But Puga “stands with the people rather than above them,” Jeelani added. “He's so kind and empathetic.”
“You have to be there to understand — and once you do, there's no going back,” Eliason said. “I can't imagine being at any other school.”
The Colorado Association of School Executives presented Puga with the Principal of the Year award. The association provides networking opportunities and advocacy regarding public education, among other services.
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