OTTUMWA — Seniors at Ottumwa High School have had a different principal each year they’ve been in the building. Richard Hutchinson wants to be the principal to break that cycle.
“I didn’t come here just to be here for a year,” he said shortly after the end of his first semester at the helm of OHS.
Hutchinson’s career has spanned 10 years teaching in the Des Moines Public Schools system, six years at Saydel teaching and serving as vice principal, 11 years as principal at Urbandale High School and five years in the same role in Glenwood.
“I thought a couple of times, ‘OK, I’m going to retire,’” he said, but always got a feeling in his gut that he wasn’t quite done.
Part of what drew him to OHS was the diversity of the student population. “There are a lot of different languages spoken in this district, different backgrounds,” he said. At about 1,300 students, it’s also the largest school he’s been a part of. He wanted to take on the challenge, asking himself, “How successful can I be in that type of environment?”
The school, Hutchinson said, has a lot to offer its student. There’s a range of more than 20 athletic teams, a variety of fine arts programs and about 15-20 clubs students can participate in. “If we have a student that wants to be involved, trust me, we have something for them,” he said. “We are continuously adding more.”
There are some challenges he faces, though. At the beginning of the year, he said he had a lot to learn. “There are a lot of programs and outside resources a person needs to get to know to understand the system,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve had a lot of help and support to get to know them. The support I’ve gotten, it’s not just from administrators. The teachers have also helped me acclimate, and the kids seem to have accepted me as their building principal.”
He’s also got a vision for where he wants to take OHS. He said he’s not satisfied with some to the language he hears in the hallways and wants to clean it up. “We’re better than that,” he said. He wants there to be high expectations when students come into the building, and that includes respect.
He also said that, possibly due to the constant change, some of the standards may have dropped. That’s not acceptable to him. “Students want to be pushed,” Hutchinson said. “There are a lot of diamonds in the rough that can be polished here.”
In addition to continue increasing the graduation rate to the high 90s, he also wants to see the partnership OHS has with Indian Hills Community College grow. “I would like to see us take more advantage of IHCC programs” and see more students graduate with college credit or even a certificate in a trade program. “I think that’s a prime area we can take advantage of.”
Hutchinson also admired the loyalty he sees in the community, “Those born and raised here bleed red, no doubt about it,” he said. But at the same time, he said they need to realize some of the old ways no longer work. “We need, as a community, to learn to grow and change.”
Outside of work, he said he doesn’t need a lot of excitement. Hutchinson said he does some golfing in the summer and travels to see family in Des Moines and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to spend time with his kids and grandkids.
“I also like to go support our students at activities and games,” he said.
Overall, the OHS principal thinks the school is moving in the right direction. “We have a superintendent that knows how to look into the future and where she wants to take us. That’s exciting,” he said. “People in the position of making decisions make decisions in the interest of the kids, and you don’t always have that.
“I feel comfortable here,” Hutchinson said. “I don’t feel like I need to be watching over my shoulder, which is a good thing. We just want to get better. I think we can. I think we have the right people in place for that to happen.”
And for that to happen, he said, there needs to be a change of mindset. “I really do believe some people buy into the ’Oh well, it’s Ottumwa’ attitude. I don’t buy into that at all.”
Instead, he said, the goal should be to set the standard and have others look at Ottumwa and say, “Man, did you check out what they did in Ottumwa?”