PHS Principal Mel Siefert Is Leading By Example For Quaker Students & Faculty
Photographer: Amy Payne
Born and raised in Batesville, Indiana, Mel Siefert attended Butler University where he played football before returning to his hometown to teach and coach. After serving as principal of Batesville Middle School for 15 years, he was given the opportunity in 2013 to become Plainfield High School (PHS)’s principal.
“It’s a little unusual to change courses after 28 years, but I felt it was time to stretch and challenge myself,” Siefert says. “From day one, I’ve never regretted the decision. All you have to do is talk to the kids and teachers to know that this is a good place to be.”
Siefert describes PHS as a “small big school” because even though attendance is pushing 1,700, the campus still has that small-school feel.
“People really care about what they do here,” Siefert says. “Kids want to do well. Teachers want the same. We make sure that no student gets lost in the shuffle.”
One way they ensure that connections are made is by instituting a weekly SMART period wherein students meet every Wednesday for an hour to discuss various topics such as social media and financial literacy. SMART, which stands for Student Mentoring And Resource Time, is also used to hold 30-minute club meetings. Administrators chose to reserve this time for clubs after learning that a good number of students were not involved in before or after-school extracurricular activities due to transportation issues.
“We wanted everyone to have a chance to get plugged in at school,” Siefert says.
The 85 teachers, plus administrators, work hard to create an inclusive culture. PHS offers more than 40 clubs, including the Red Pride Robotics Team, Jr. Optimist, Student Government, Muslim Student Association, and Riley Dance Marathon. A new one that started this year, Hands for Heroes, performs service projects for veterans.
“We knew of a local disabled veteran who needed help with yard work, so our students jumped in to lend a hand,” Siefert says. “Just before Christmas, they also mailed care packages to the troops. The group has done a great job of serving both our local community and the community at large.”
Siefert and all the PHS staff are eager to provide students with as many opportunities and experiences as possible to be successful — “not just next year but also 10 years down the road,” Siefert says. “We want to make sure every student who walks across that stage in May has a plan, whether that involves joining the armed forces, entering the workforce or attending a secondary school.”
Every year PHS randomly selects a handful of recent alumni to participate in a round-table discussion about their experience while at PHS. They discuss the curriculum, the social environment and technology, among other things. The number one comment students make is that they lament not enrolling in a fine arts class during their tenure at school.
“It breaks my heart that they missed out on that. It tells me that we need to make sure we have course offerings that expose students to various mediums of the arts,” Siefert says. “Believe me, coming from someone who can’t play the radio or draw a straight line with a ruler, I admire anyone with talent in the arts.”
Siefert is proud of the fact that school administration supports not only academics but also athletics and fine arts. Every year, their show choirs and bands win accolades for their talent, ranking high in the state. In addition, in 2015 PHS was one of 10 schools in the state to receive access to Project Lead The Way (PLTW) Biomedical Science program. PLTW is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and the nation’s leading provider of K-12 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.
“It’s a hands-on experience in science geared toward the medical field so that interested students who take those classes will be well prepared for the college level,” explains Siefert, whose favorite part about living in Plainfield is being 10 minutes from Lowes since he loves diving into home improvement projects.
“When I lived in Batesville, everything was a 30-minute drive, but here you have the feel of a small-town community but are still only 10 minutes from restaurants and 20 minutes from downtown,” Siefert says.
He talks to students daily in the cafeteria to learn of their interests and find out what’s going on in their lives. When he bumps into students when he’s out and about in the community, their faces light up.
“That’s how you know you’ve made an impact on kids,” says Siefert, who is equally as excited to see them.
In February, he joined 25 students to participate in the Polar Plunge at Eagle Creek Park to raise money for the Indiana Special Olympics.
“These are all student volunteers who help with our special needs program as peer tutors,” Siefert says.
No matter the situation, he’s always all in, whether that means jumping into icy waters or slaving over a hot grill during annual Hot Dog Days at the school. Each fall, the administration serves hot dogs to seniors during “Seniors Homecoming Tailgate.” In addition, in the spring, Siefert, Assistant Principals Mr. Schwanekamp, Mr. Moore, and Mr. Menser, and Athletic Director Mr. Rodkey grill 600 hot dogs per grade (there is Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior Hot Dog Day).
“Kids love it. They perceive it as having a family cookout,” Siefert says. “The students like seeing us in a different light — there in our grilling clothes. They really appreciate it. Every single student says ‘thank you.’ It’s amazing how little it costs and how much of a return you get for it.”
Siefert relishes these interactions because he wants to be present in each and every student’s life.
“In order be an effective school leader, you have to be visible and approachable,” Siefert says. “Kids need to know that you’re championing for them. And we certainly are.”