After 30 years Jim Avery will say goodbye to Otter Valley
By Angelo Lynn
BRANDON — At a school board meeting Tuesday night chock full of budget preparations, concerns of Covid cases at school and impending testing program to keep students in school and healthy as much as possible, plus a shortage of available teachers, substitutes and school bus drivers, the bombshell news of the meeting was something entirely unexpected: the board learned that long-time Otter Valley Principal James Avery had submitted his letter of resignation effective this June 2022.
At 63, Avery said the decision was very emotional for him and it didn’t come easy, but he simply told RNESU Superintendent Jeanné Collins that “the time had come” to let someone else take charge as principal and take the school forward.
“I’ve always wanted the best for this place — this school, this community, these students,” Avery said in a brief interview Tuesday morning. “You always want to leave a place better than you found it… I hope I’ve done that. Now it’s time to give it to someone new and let them make it better.”
Avery first came to the school in 1991 as a special educator hired by Supt. Bill Mathis during the first inklings of the “school-to-work” movement that later morphed into the school’s Career Center. “I was able to design, create and implement my own work programs here for those students under Dr. Mathis and it was a very exciting program and opportunity.” Three years later, in October 1994, he agreed to a one-year stint as an associate principal.
He stayed as associate principal until 2010, when he became co-principal with Nancy Robinson until she retired in 2014 and Avery was hired as OV’s principal. He was honored as the state’s Assistant Principal of the Year in 2005.
Decades of change
During his years at the school much has changed, Avery said. “When I came, we didn’t have a football program, or a girls’ soccer team, or a climbing team,” and Avery was a big supporter of the school’s theater program.
The public can see the yearly records of the school’s athletic programs, though not as noticed are the school’s climbing program, which is one of the very few in the state, and its theater program, which, Avery said, is “one of the best in the state,” and it has been for many years. It’s directed by Jeff Hull, who was hired in 1999, and for the second time has been invited this year to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“If OV’s theater program was in athletics, it would be considered a dynasty,” Avery said. “It’s that good.”
Avery also launched the school into an innovative exchange program with China from 2004-2016. He started as part of the Sino-American Seminar on Educational Leadership, and then became program director for the Advanced Asian Studies Program, which lasted for 12 years between 2004-2016. During that time he spent three weeks each summer for 10 years in various parts of China through UVM’s Asian Studies Outreach Program, introducing teachers to the China language and culture.
“During those years we also hosted an exchange for three years of up to 30 Chinese students coming to OV and living in the district communities for two weeks,” Avery recalled, adding that he also worked with the Confucius Institute/Hanban organization to host two teachers over five years.
“We also have a partnership with the Vermont International Academy in Shanghai and prior to Covid we hosted two tuition paying students that attended OV in their senior year. We began this relationship in 2016 with the plan that interested students from OV would be able to spend time in China at one of the Academy sites. Covid put these plans on hold.
“None of this could have been done,” Avery said, “without the district’s towns embracing these individuals and making them welcome in our community.”
Avery said he gave notice of his impending resignation, still eight months away, early to allow the school board and Supt. Jeanné Collins ample time to fill the position, to, in his words, “get out in front of this.”
Supt. Collins said Avery’s departure would certainly be felt, noting a few of his many accomplishments.
“Losing Jim means the end of an era and we are all sad to see him go,” Collins said. “Jim brought in the Chinese language program, supported student voice through building relationships with each student class as they moved through, supported extra-curricular activities through the building of sports teams and the support of the Walking Stick Theater program. Jim also has led through some challenging times, including school safety issues that touched too close to home and Covid. He has been a steady figure at events and in the school daily.”
Collins also said she greatly appreciated Avery’s advance notice and that she would be sending information to the community soon about a fall search process.
Of that search, Avery reflected on the job of principal and what it takes.
“Whomever they get, you have to be all in,” he said. “A principal has to be all in, every day. And the community knows it,” he said, “and they give back when you are.” “For me, it’s been an incredible journey,” Avery added, with a reference to his late wife, Mickey, who died in October 2019 and who had been at his side at many school events for years. “It is an amazing community to be a part of. I have loved the students, school and community and they love you back. I think that is what makes this community amazing … it’s that they love you back.”