Ron Wooden wiped away tears as he sat in his office Monday, the last day of the 2020-21 school year, listening to messages from students and teachers over the intercom, wishing him well as he wrapped his final year as principal of Havre de Grace Elementary School.
Heartfelt messages such as “I will miss you,” “We love you, Mr. Wooden,” even one of the principal’s catchphrases, “bam, bam, bam, bam!” came over the loudspeaker. Another group of students gathered in the main office and sang their rendition of Andrew Gold’s “Thank You for Being a Friend.”
Wooden then exchanged elbow bumps with the children — the principal, students and staff all wore masks in the building, and Wooden has substituted elbow bumps for his traditional handshakes and high-fives when greeting students as a COVID-19 safety protocol.
“This has been an amazing place, with amazing kids,” said Wooden, his voice filled with emotion.
“You made it amazing,” fourth-grader Averett Halsey told Wooden. The principal replied that “your teachers helped make it amazing.”
Wooden has spent a decade at Havre de Grace Elementary, starting as an assistant principal in the 2010-11 school year and being promoted to principal during the 2013-14 school year. He came to Havre de Grace after serving as a teacher and assistant principal at George D. Lisby Elementary School at Hillsdale, in Aberdeen.
“This have been my home for 10 years, and I have loved every minute of it,” Wooden said.
He will continue serving schools in southern Harford County, as Wooden will be principal of William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon next year. Jennifer Gasdia, a current assistant principal, will succeed Wooden at Havre de Grace.
Wooden has spent 23 years with Harford County Public Schools and was named HCPS’ Teacher of the year for 2008-09. He received the honor of National Outstanding Assistant Principal of the Year in 2014.
“Mr. Wooden is, I would say, a very fun principal to have,” student Jack Horn said.
The outgoing fourth grader praised Wooden for his enthusiasm and energy, such as his energetic delivery of the morning announcements, activities such as “pop-up” recesses and field trips — plus virtual dance parties when the school was closed for in-person learning during the pandemic — and initiatives such as bringing a system of “houses” to the school and emphasizing traits like good character and kindness for students.
“You have to be the good person,” Jack said. “You have to be nice to everybody, even those [who are] cruel and mean and disrespectful.”
He said he “genuinely wouldn’t want to be” at any other school, since it wouldn’t have a house system, and “they don’t have Mr. Wooden there.”
“I’m so sad that I don’t get to see him in my last year of school,” Jack said.
Averett also praised Wooden’s enthusiasm for school and how it spreads to the students. He noted how Wooden interacts with pupils on a regular basis, such as during classroom visits.
“He just tries to interact with everyone, and he’s really done a lot with this school,” Averett said. “And, he’s made Havre de Grace, Havre de Grace.”
The Harry Potter-inspired house system involves students at all grade levels, from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, being sorted into six houses categorized by color. Members get together once a month for “house day” and participate in character education programs. Each house can earn points and compete for a championship — Havre de Grace administrators brought the house program to their school after learning about its implementation in an Atlanta middle school, according to Wooden.
He said the program helps students develop “a sense of community, a sense of family, with ourselves, with our teachers.”
Wooden gave significant credit for his success as Havre de Grace principal to the teachers and staff, and he praised the community and city leaders for their support of the school. He also expressed pride in the students, whom he calls “my scholars.”
“This has been so much fun,” he said, noting “it never felt like work” and that “I felt like there was a team out there to cheer us on.”
“Our job was to continue to bring everyone together and realize, ‘We are the Grace,’” Wooden said.
The phrase “we are the Grace” originated at the school under Wooden. It has become a rallying cry for Havre de Grace Elementary families who want their children to remain there and not be shifted to elementary schools outside of town, as Harford County Public Schools goes through a balancing enrollment process. The final recommendations will effect in the 2022-23 school year once approved by the Board of Education.
City resident Ashira Quabili, who recently moved to the Bulle Rock community and has a son going into first grade at Havre de Grace Elementary, praised the teachers and administrators for their support of her child while in kindergarten.
“They’re all phenomenal,” she said during a protest outside the HCPS headquarters in Bel Air in late April. “I can’t imagine having to restart those relationships in a new location — I think that they are a one-of-a-kind staff, truly.”
Wooden also highlighted Monday the community’s support of Havre de Grace Elementary during the balancing enrollment process.
“Our community is one of our best assets,” Gasdia, the incoming principal, said.
She noted that members of the community, teachers and students would follow Wooden “anywhere, through anything, because he does such a good job of taking care of people.”
Love and caring for others are traits Wooden learned from his second-grade teacher, Joan Godwin, when he was growing up in Philadelphia. Godwin is the key person who inspired him to be an educator, he said, citing “her love for teaching, her love for learning and most importantly, her love for students.”
Gasdia also cited the theme “loved people, love people,” which was described by an applicant during their interview for a job at the school, and adorned the school marquee Monday.
Wooden is one of several staff members departing Havre de Grace after the most recent school year. Others include fifth-grade teachers Thomas Dennison, who was named a Milken Educator in 2016 and plans to become a pastor; Mary Weaver, who is retiring after 30 years at Havre de Grace Elementary; and Karrie Bandy, who is being promoted to assistant principal — she will split her time between William Paca/Old Post Road and Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air, according to Gasdia.
Wooden praised Gasdia for her support during the 7 ½ years they have served as principal and assistant principal, saying she is “my friend, she’s my sister, she’s my colleague.”
He will miss being a Havre de Grace Little Warrior, but he also is excited to be the “leading learning Penguin” at William Paca/Old Post Road. He described himself, in his role as principal, as the “lead learner” for the school. A large part of his job involves learning about new education strategies that he delivers to his teachers through professional development.
Wooden said love can be felt walking through the Havre de Grace Elementary building, that it is contagious. He has been feeling that love during his final days at the school.
“It’s the thing that’s [telling] me to be OK with my move, because I’m leaving a place that has surrounded me with love,” he said.