When Ben Howell was a sophomore at Sonora High School in the mid-1990s, he and his friends would have lunch out on the campus mall every day with the long-time Associate Principal Chase Anderson.

“I think as a student it impressed me that an administrator would care about us enough to take time to talk about life and what we care about,” Howell, 39, said.
Anderson shared wisdom of learning and life, but wasn’t shy about being goofy with the kids either, Howell said. Those moments were formative in Howell’s career development, molding his interactive leadership style as a former Sonora High School english teacher and as principal.

After four years as principal, Howell will move to the position of superintendent-principal at Summerville Elementary School beginning July 1.

On the transition from his alma mater, Howell said he is seeking to grow as an educational leader and foster more diverse relationships in the county where he grew up.

“That relationship is the most important thing you can do with students, with parents, with teachers, with staff members — anybody,” Howell said.

Howell attended Mother Lode Adventist Junior Academy and moved to Sonora Elementary School in third grade. He graduated from Sonora High School in 1998 and earned his college degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2004. Howell has a masters degree in educational leadership and school administration from California State University Stanislaus.

Howell started in education early. He was licensed to teach in Nevada in 2005 and earned his California teaching credential a year later. He taught English at Hume Lake Charter School and moved back to Sonora in 2007, where he taught English at the high school for four years. He was laid off and spent a year teaching seventh grade English at Columbia Elementary School before serving as assistant principal and student activities director for two years, associate principal for one year, and then principal.

“I deeply love and care about Sonora High School, but I'm also looking to grow where I’m at as an educational leader. It’s a big jump in responsibility, but it is an opportunity that's exciting,” he said.

Howell said he hopes he’s made a difference in the lives of students while principal. Under his tenure, Sonora High School earned a six-year Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation and instituted the “Get Focused … Stay Focused!” college and career preparedness program for students.

“We live in such a unique and special community. I really want to be a part of developing and supporting the educational system for that community,” he said.

Sonora High School, located just north of downtown Sonora, is the largest high school in the county with just under 900 students. Summerville Elementary School District, which includes the K-8 school located on Carter Street in Tuolumne, has 400 students, said outgoing principal Mitch Heldstab.

“It's kind of a hidden gem. We have great support from our community, because we consider ourselves to be a community school. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” Heldstab said.

The Summerville Elementary School District had a vacancy in the principal position due to the impending retirement of Heldstab, 61, who has served as principal for the past four years.

The current superintendent for Summerville Elementary School and Sonora Elementary School, Leigh Shampain, said he and the board decided to shift the district’s current administrative model — with a part-time superintendent and full-time principal — to a consolidated superintendent-principal role.

“That's no longer an option in this county, no one wants to share superintendents anymore,” Shampain said. “It’s a good time to look at what we would have to do in the future and it’s an accelerated timeline, so the school will have an administration that will work better in terms of continuity.”

Shampain said he would move into semi-retirement as the part-time superintendent of Sonora Elementary School in the 2019-2020 school year. He has served as the superintendent of both elementary schools for eight years.

He said the transition to the superintendent-principal at Summerville Elementary (which would require the hire of an assistant principal) would likely cost more, but would provide a more active and engaged presence of campus administrators.

Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mark Miller said the open principal position at the high school was posted online Wednesday and the district expected to take applications for several weeks.

“In the meantime, I will be contacting staff parents to see kind of what they are looking for in the next principal,” Miller said.

Miller said it was uncommon to seek out a search firm for a principal selection. If the applicant pool met district standards, Miller said a panel would be selected to interview the prospective candidates. An interim principal could be chosen if the district decided they needed more time, he said.

Keeping the position vacant is not an option for the district, Miller added.

“Someone has to be in that position. When you're running a high school, someone has to be in charge,” Miller said. “I would like it to be seamless, but I’m not going to push the timeline if I don't feel like we have a solid applicant pool to draw from.”

Miller said he was unsure if the school had received any applications yet. The Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees would be required to approve the hire.

“I found Ben to be very professional, very competent. He’s easy to work with,” Miller said. “Ben is Sonoran through and through. He is a multi-generation Sonora resident and that’s important in this community.”

Howell said he still thinks of Sonora High School from the vantage point of when he was a student, despite working at the school for over a decade.

“Everything I've done has been based on that. That’s the unique and special part of this. I've been able to be a part of every different capacity here,” he said.

Howell lives in Soulsbyville with his wife and three children.

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