When Greg Wohlman was 18 years old, he left his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota – and never looked back.
“I had a driver’s license, a can of Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar, and a high school diploma,” said Wohlman in an interview with The Beat. “And I drove as fast as I could.”
He drove out to Texas, where he attended East Texas State University, studying advertising and art, with a focus on copywriting. However, several years later, after graduating from school, he had the realization that the advertising industry just wasn’t for him, that there was a deeper calling…
That deeper calling was education.
And so, in 1998, he answered that calling and began teaching. Twenty-five years later, on July 1 of this year, he officially stepped into the role of Principal at Milpitas High School (MHS). As someone who resonates with the “culture of we” mentality that the Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) works to instill across its schools, Wohlman feels he’s found something truly special.
“When we look at the ‘culture of we’ in Milpitas, we’re more than just a high school,” said Wohlman. “We need to look at the kindergarten or pre-k student walking into our system. We need to harness their student voice along their journey, so that we’re constantly shaping what we do at the high school to honor our clientele. I think it’s a new way of thinking about education. Our Superintendent and School Board totally understand that.”
Working as a Principal
Before becoming principal at MHS, Wohlman spent nine years as principal of three schools that are part of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.
Before that, Wohlman had the unique experience of being assistant principal of a school in the Bush of Alaska, located on St. Lawrence island, in the Bering Sea; after a year in that role, he was made principal of three schools located in a school district in Kalskag, Alaska. He stayed there in Kalskag for six years.
“It’s challenging, because it’s not a place where the postcards come from. It’s out there,” said Wohlman.
Just to get to a medical appointment, Wohlman would have to take two different planes.
The school district in Kalskag even had their own plane, and was literally a fly-in only district. In other words, there was a strip of gravel in the middle of nowhere for those who wanted to access one of the three schools. Doing something as simple as buying paper towels for the school meant taking a plane trip to the store.
To go out to a school board meeting, Wohlman would have to hop onto a small plane and fly 20 minutes to get to the district office. As difficult as it was, in six years, he never missed a board meeting.
Along with the inconvenience of having to fly everywhere, extreme weather was also a big challenge.
Plane crashes happened all the time. They were so common that they didn’t even make the news.
“Everyone knew somebody who had gone down in a plane, or didn’t come back,” said Wohlman.
In the end, Wohlman and his wife decided to leave Alaska. The plane crashes were getting a little too close to home. The school district plane even crashed once. Luckily, everybody on board survived. But other people they knew hadn’t been so lucky.
“Pilots I flew with lost their lives; some were people I flew with 50 times. Same route, same plane, and same pilot; and I happened to not be on it. My wife and I began questioning our probability…” said Wohlman.
Not only that, but getting access to simple pleasures like yogurt and other dairy products was a rare luxury. Even just being able to watch a movie or hang out with friends was incredibly challenging.
That’s when Wohlman decided to apply for a principal position in the Tahoe-Truckee district. He ended up getting the job. Although he had made a lot of connections in Alaska and found it hard to leave, Wohlman knew it was time to move on.
Creating a Safe Place
During his time as principal in Alaska, the turnover rate for the school district was close to 60% every year. Despite that, Wohlam was proud of the fact that under his watch, they were able to meet 90% staff retention for a couple years in a row. For one year, it even hit 100%.
“It’s about making people feel safe and putting them first,” said Wohlman. “The students, the staff – putting all of them first was a big part of that high retention rate.”
Now that Wohlman is at MHS, he intends to continue putting others first and also ensuring that students are being listened to and supported. He feels that students nowadays have countless options after graduation, which can be challenging.
“There’s this pressure on our high school graduates of having so many choices that they don’t know what to do,” said Wohlman.
It doesn’t help, Wohlman feels, that education in general has stayed the same for over a century now. Since students are shifting and evolving over these years, and there’s more of a focus on mental health lately, Wohlman feels that the system must also adapt to best serve their needs. He feels that MUSD is creating space to listen to students’ voices and make the shifts necessary to provide a meaningful education for each of them.
His position as principal of MHS also means that he’ll be leading programs at the Innovation Campus that is currently being built at 1331 E Calaveras Blvd.
As he looks around at the educational environment here in Milpitas each and every day, he sees the “culture of we” in action. He feels that all of the staff and teachers at MUSD are really dedicating themselves to offering a higher level of education for the students.
“Our generations are changing faster, at an exponential rate, than ever before,” said Wohlman. “And at MUSD, we’re designing and shaping our schools to reflect our clientele. We’re creating a safe place for all students to be able to achieve.”
The first day of school is on Thursday, August 10.