Kellene Ditler, new principal of Summerville High School and the Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy, taught at the community day school at Curtis Creek Elementary for about a year or two, but in 2005 she learned a lesson that has guided her career through the present day.

The numbers at the community day school fluctuated every week over the course of the school year, she said. Of the about five to 15 students, many came from a “rough family environment,” and all faced the possibility of expulsion if they could not complete the curriculum.

Two boys would always come in “hungry, haggard and exhausted,” she said.

Ditler would bring breakfast from the cafeteria for the students, and filled her drawer with snacks to keep them fed. Over time, she saw their attitudes, and their test scores, improve.

“I tried to create a classroom environment that was like a safe home environment,” she said. “We got to the point where they knew me, they trusted me, and they were improving academically.”

Even with their improvements, Ditler was still “heartbroken” by the home circumstances of the boys.

“Once they got to school their mood picked up. They were happy, they were confident. As the day wound to an end you could see that expression change and they had to go home and they were not happy about it,” she said.

By the time the students left the course, Ditler solidified a guiding principle of her career in education: Every individual student needs attention, safety and empathy to help them thrive.

“We have a huge responsibility. When I went back to a regular classroom I realized you can’t take for granted that all 30 kids are perfectly happy,” she said. “It made me a better teacher.”

Ditler was approved as the new principal of Summerville High School and Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy Monday morning by the Summerville Union High School District Board.

Ditler, a Tuolumne County native, has 26 years of experience in education and started her career in San Jose. After four years of teaching in Calaveras County, she began a 20-year career at Curtis Creek Elementary School, where she taught eighth-grade language arts, sixth grade, physical education, was a coach, and at the community day school, she said.

For the past two years, Ditler has been a part of the Summerville High School administrative staff as a grade-level coordinator working with special education students and other student counseling responsibilities.

She has a masters degree in education from Stanislaus State University.

“It’s a new role for me, and I am thrilled because this is such a wonderful place to work,” she said. “Everybody is just wonderful to work with. The team players, the positive climate on this campus is something that attracted me to this place in the first place.”

Former Principal Diana Hartford left the position on June 30 to work at the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office as director of school and district support.

Ditler said she developed the ambition to climb the administrative ladder after the last of her children left for college. She pursued the administration credential program through the Teachers College of San Joaquin and was required to perform 20 work days shadowing Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Pat Chabot and other Sonora High School administrators to understand the transition from teaching.

“When you teach, it is all about your schedule and your lessons and your week,” she said. “When you jump into the world of admin, it is just flying all day long. It's fun and I enjoy it.”

Ditler said her plans as principal are to continue fostering academic and cultural development at both of the schools. Without any pressing issues facing the schools’ curriculum and students, she said her focus will be on “continued growth.”

Ditler said she hopes more Advanced Placement and Career and Technical Education courses can be provided and wants to solidify her role as a liaison to parents.

Additionally, she hopes to maintain a school-wide focus on a “national” challenge for schools: safety and problems tied to social media.

“We are constantly looking at security from all angles,” she said. “It’s a hugely important responsibility for us to keep our kids safe, and we all take it very seriously.”

The focus on achievement and safety should ultimately foster a connection between the administrative staff and students, she said. With a knowledge of student struggles and compassion for their situations, Summerville High School and Connections Academy will continue to flourish.

“They are little people trying to grow up still,” she said. “That's something that I will bring with me from the GLC (grade level coordinator) role to the principal role.”

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.