Chuck Puga didn't want to get too comfortable.
As an educator and administrator with more than 25 years of experience under his belt, Puga has built the kind of résumé that offers a degree of stability and predictability. In the spring, he wrapped up his eighth year as the principal of Ponderosa High School, and it's a post he could have easily held on to for many more years.
But Puga wanted a way to change the equation, and the answer came when the position of principal opened at Smoky Hill High School earlier this year.
"You become accustomed to what you know. After 26 years in education, you can get complacent," Puga said. "For me, I always need a new challenge. To be able to come to Cherry Creek and to be able to come to Smoky Hill was that challenge."
Specifically, Puga saw an opportunity to be part of a community with deep roots and a clear mission. Part of the appeal of the shift came in his own personal connections to the district – Puga's wife is the assistant principal at Sagebrush Elementary School, and he has other familial ties to Indian Ridge Elementary and Eaglecrest High School, as well as a crowd of friends who work in the district.
The deeper lure of the Cherry Creek School District, however, came in the common mission he picked up from countless teachers, staff members and administrators he came across at schools and buildings across its 108 square miles. Longtime veterans of the district and relative newcomers shared a common kind of focus that was downright inspiring.
"When this position opened, all of my connections in the district were very supportive of me making the change," Puga said. "For me, education has always been about people. I love the fact that (Superintendent, Dr. Harry) Bull and (Associate Superintendent, Dr. Scott) Siegfried talk about people and relationships. I love the district's tagline of being dedicated to excellence every day – for me, it's a very powerful word that elicits a lot of emotion. It's something that's tangible."
Puga wants to bring that measurable approach to excellence to his new role at Smoky Hill, and he's already brought a personal touch to the process. Puga started getting involved in the school's everyday operations over the summer, taking a lead role in interviewing and hiring 18 new teachers at the school. He's also worked to leverage the school's "superstars," working firsthand with teachers like Mark Paricio, the physics instructor who recently won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
"I want to honor the past; this is a school with 40 years of tradition. There is something for every kid here – if you want to be in our IB program or Middle Years program, that's available. If you want to take AP classes or be part of our AVID program, that's available. We have 54 different clubs and 23 athletic activities. The opportunities at Smoky Hill have really impressed me."
-- Smoky Hill High School Principal Chuck Puga
Puga has also taken a personal approach to making connections with Smoky Hill's feeder schools, meeting personally with administrators from Laredo and Horizon middle schools. Along with plans to reboot and expand the school's Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program to prepare students in the academic middle with potential for success for post-secondary education, Puga wants to build as many ties as possible in the first year in order to maintain and expand the school's impressive network of academic choices for students.
"I'm going to do everything I can to make sure the staff knows I care about what they do and value what they do," Puga said. "I want to honor the past; this is a school with 40 years of tradition. There is something for every kid here – if you want to be in our IB program or Middle Years program, that's available. If you want to take AP classes or be part of our AVID program, that's available. We have 54 different clubs and 23 athletic activities. The opportunities at Smoky Hill have really impressed me."
That breadth of choice ties in directly to Puga's views on being an effective educator. He's committed to a "one size fits one" approach to instruction, tailoring classroom instruction to the strengths and interests of every student. As a former educator and coach who got his start in the trenches teaching football and leading student athletes through football and track drills, he's seen the value of individualized attention firsthand.
And Puga is certain that learning shouldn't be confined to students to make that approach effective. Being an effective part of a school's community means constantly learning and honing one's skills, he says.
"Education has evolved over the past 27 years. I believe that kids don't learn to do anymore, they do to learn. Things have changed; the needs of our kids are much different than the needs we had," Puga said. "Kids want to be involved. As teachers and administrators, we have to be adaptable enough to meet students where they are. It's just as important for us to be learners as it is for our kids to be learners."
For Puga, that philosophy means never getting too comfortable or complacent. It's what brought him to his new role at Smoky Hill, and it's what will drive his work as the school's principal.