Filip Hristic, the new principal at Wilson High School, says he's spent the last couple of months listening and has learned a lot.
"I've been meeting with students, families and teachers — mostly after school — to connect and start building relationships and learn as much as I can before I officially start," he said, shortly before taking his new post on July 1.
Hristic (pronounced h-REES-tich) comes to Wilson from Roosevelt High School in North Portland, where he was principal for five years.
He applied for the job as soon as it came open last September.
"I wanted to be principal of Wilson High School even though leaving Roosevelt was incredibly hard," he said." But being principal at Wilson was not an opportunity I anticipated I would have this early. I felt like the opportunity to serve in my community was too good to pass up."
Hristic, who lives with his wife and two elementary school-aged children about halfway between Multnomah Village and Hillsdale, was referring to the opening created by the surprise, 2018 late-summer resignation of Brian Chatard, Wilson's last principal. That was followed eight months later by the abrupt, unexplained departure of acting principal Maude Lamont. Then there was an incident in April that lead to Portland police being called to the Southwest Vermont Street campus. In May, there was a student walk-out to protest how that incident was handled.
"It's clearly been a very challenging year on a number of different levels, so part of our job will be to regroup and refocus and rebuild. So that's what we'll be doing," Hristic said.
As to what took place to prompt the lockout in April, Hristic said, "I wasn't there. I haven't been part of any specific conversations about the lockout incident. Everything I've heard has been hearsay so it wouldn't be appropriate of me to comment, except to say that issues of safety are primary for me."
Asked whether his conversations with members of the Wilson community are ready to move on, he replied, "To be honest with you, I'm not sure we're there yet. And I say that not because I don't think we are. I need to be honest about the fact that I'm still getting to know the community and I know that when a person goes through a difficult experience, it's easy for someone who didn't go through that experience to say, 'Well, it's over. Move on.' Right?
"So I want to be respectful. I want to be cautious and make sure that I'm being a good listener and learner before I can make an assessment of whether we're ready to simply forget about this year and focus on next year," he said.
Hristic says before being interviewed for the position, he had prepared a plan for what he would do during his first 30, 60 and 90 days as Wilson principal.
"Since then, since I've met with some different stakeholders and as some other events have transpired, I've really had to say, 'You know what? That plan is no longer relevant. I need to rethink it.'"
One thing he won't rethink is a commitment to Wilson's 1,400 students.
"We have to be student-centered," he said. "The focus needs to be on our student's experience, needs to be on our student's learning, needs to be on what we're hearing from our students. The adults are there to be of service to the students."
One of the greatest appeals to the position at Wilson, he says, is that, "I'm a member of the community. I'm excited to be the principal of my neighbor's kids and my friend's kids and the kids of families that live in the area. Perhaps one day my own kids will be going to Wilson so I can really resonate with that sense of pride that so many teachers and community members expressed."
Hristic's daughter, Maya, will start fourth grade at Maplewood School and his son, Mateo, will be a first grader at Hayhurst School in September. He coaches Mateo's soccer team.
"A number of dads told me how their sons are talking about how I'm going to be their principal someday," Hristic said. "The possibility of knowing someone all the way from first grade up to high school is just an incredible honor and privilege and I feel fortunate to be given the opportunity," he said.
Hristic was born in Belgrade, Serbia, and came to America when he was in seventh grade. He says his family hoped to return to Serbia, but war in the Balkans made that impossible. So he finished high school in New Jersey, undergraduate and graduate school at Boston College, and pursued teacher training studies at Harvard.
His career began in classrooms in Boston. He moved to Oregon in 2007. Before taking the top job at Roosevelt, Hristic was principal at Newberg High School and at Creative Science, a Portland Public Schools K-8 "focus option school."
A news release from Portland Public Schools, when he was named principal at Wilson, noted his management of a $100 million modernization project at Roosevelt as one of his accomplishments. He also was given credit for enrollment increases and higher graduation rates at Roosevelt.