After 33 years with East Lansing School District, educator, role model, and East Lansing resident of 54 years, Andrew Wells is retiring from his post as principal of East Lansing High School this June.
ELi spoke to Wells about his impending retirement and throughout the conversation his passion for children, their development, education, and success — his guiding motivation for each day — was evident.
Wells told ELi that his decision to work in the public school system stems from his time working with students at basketball and track camps while he was a student at Michigan State University, where he discovered his passion for working with youths.
In 1981, after completing one of his three degrees at MSU, Wells started with ELPS at Hannah Middle School (which is now Hannah Community Center) doing basic jobs.
“I had an opportunity to be a part of the school fabric and to have influence on youth at that time, and that was something that I have cherished throughout my whole career,” Wells said, reminiscing on his first position with ELPS as a lunchroom monitor and paraprofessional.
Wells doesn’t plan on being dormant in his retirement, he said, but he does not know exactly what is in store for him next besides more time and support for his loved ones at home.
Throughout his time with ELPS, Wells also acted as athletic director, principal of two elementary schools, and finally principal of East Lansing High School.
Wells became principal of ELHS in 2017, with a goal “to set the tone and lead the school’s collective vision for the nearly 1,100 teens walking through the doors for the 2017-18 academic year.” He carried out that charge for the subsequent 5 years.
Wells said that the variety of positions he held within the public school system opened his eyes to a student’s changing needs as they matured through the district. He was able to cater his approach based on the age and perspective of his students, as well as the varying levels of nurturing that staff offered at their grade levels.
When asked which position had the biggest impact on him, Wells said that his entire journey with ELPS has tremendously impacted his life, allowing him the chance to be himself by connecting with others in a positive way.
From several different perspectives, Wells has watched and contributed to the growth of ELPS’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
When Wells was a high schooler in East Lansing “roughly 1% of students” were minorities out of the 1,500 students at ELHS, he said.
During the 2019-2020 school year, ELHS reports 43.63% of its 3,705 students as identifying with a minority group.
Wells noted that he witnessed the entire demographic shift that has significantly changed the overall culture of the school district — from his time as a student to being principal of the high school.
In his time at ELPS — in leadership positions or otherwise — Wells has seen from afar and taken part in initiatives that addressed the achievement gap, worked to better understand the community’s culture and economic strata, and enhanced the dialogue and celebratory activities of various cultures.
Wells also made a point to laud Klaudia Burton, the district’s first Director of Equity and Social Justice, when discussing the matter. He said her position is very important to the future of the district, but that she is just getting started on a process that will take time.
“As time goes on, you will see the fruit of her labor shine even more. She has done a great job to connect and engage people in a quest for equity and diversity in the district,” Wells said.
In 2020, ELi reported that while the student body of ELPS was very diverse, the faculty was not.
Wells said that while the district has more work to do on this front, he is confident that the district’s current leadership is truly focusing on efforts to continue to diversify staff that will better reflect the student population.
“I know how important it is to have staff or members of staff reflect the student demographic. It’s important and powerful,” Wells said.
In his decades with the district, the biggest challenge Wells faced was Covid-19.
While every year has its own trouble, Wells imagines not many ELPS colleagues would disagree with him in saying that Covid-19 has proved to be one the top challenges faced in their careers in education.
Despite the past couple years also being one of the most challenging experiences in his personal and professional life, Wells still worked hard to meet people where they are in order to be as supportive as possible throughout the unprecedented situation.
“Part of my role and position is to help people navigate these challenges and sometimes, when you’re a leader, you have to give your heart and soul to help others and put your own issues on the backburner to make sure everyone else is in a good place,” Wells said.
But the challenges also lead to rewards. Wells’ day is made better when he sees the “gleam in students’ eyes” as they experienced the joy of returning to school in-person again after the height of the pandemic.
He has been tremendously impressed by East Lansing students as they have continued to pursue their goals despite the barriers the pandemic has given rise to, and how students have constantly tried to make the best of their situation.
As advice to a new educator, Wells recommends taking lessons from these past couple years of difficult challenges.
He also encourages new teachers and administration to constantly be working on developing positive relationships, and to understand that support from colleagues is invaluable because “we are all learning together.”
Wells will be missed by students and staff throughout ELPS.
Most members of staff at ELPS have never worked in the district without Andrew Wells, “an icon in ELPS,” according to Superintendent Dori Leyko.
Leyko told ELi that Wells is the origin of the phrase “East Lansing High School Family,” a sentiment that he exuded everyday as he treated students and staff like family.
Colleagues spoke highly of Wells’ ability to be a role model to administration and staff, to build meaningful relationships with students, to make students feel safe, seen, and heard, and to authentically love and care for others.
Assistant Principal Ashley Schwarzbek told ELi that “it’s truly hard to capture Andy’s life long service to ELPS.” She said he would fist bump kids in the morning upon their arrival to school, and that he was always there for them when times were tough.
Colleagues said that his impact reached thousands of students throughout his years in East Lansing. The legacy he leaves behind, they said, is one of commitment to education, relationships, and joy.