For Audrey Staniszewski, the principal at Denton’s Wilson Elementary School, the relationships she formed with students and their families didn’t end when the students left fifth grade and set out for middle school.
It was only the beginning of what for some were lifetime bonds.
So when she exits the doors of Wilson Elementary and steps into retirement at the end of the school year, Staniszewski said it’s not the academic accolades the school has received during her tenure there that she’s most proud of, it’s the relationships.
“I’m proud of the body of work that we’ve accomplished at Wilson,” she said recently. “My greatest joy was the kids that I mentored and their families. It really wasn’t about being exemplary … but it’s those relationships that I cherish and [that] brought me the biggest joy.”
Photos of students past and present hang on the office doors, cabinets and walls in Staniszewski’s office and fill her cellphone. She smiles proudly as she shows off photos of Ballet Folklorico students, an adult student who now works with some of the biggest names in pop and R&B music, a former student, now an adult, who’s just a month away from moving into a Habitat for Humanity Home for which she helped him become eligible. The faces of the children she mentored remain vivid in her mind.
Staniszewski, a Michigan native with more than 30 years experience in education, is known by students, staff and parents alike as “Ms. Stan.” She joined the Denton school district in the 1980s. In her 28 years with the district, she’s served as a resource teacher and cheer coach at Denton High School and assistant and lead principal at Wilson Elementary. She’s led Wilson for about half her years working in Denton.
In her time leading Wilson, the school has undergone a shift in population — it’s become a Title I campus, meaning it has a high number of low-income students, and a dual English-Spanish language campus.
“It was probably the high point of my career transitioning … to a bilingual campus and still maintaining the high excellence and quality instruction. It’s taken a lot of hard work, no excuses,” she said.
It’s that “no excuses” attitude Staniszewski is known for by staff at Wilson Elementary.
Her mantra, which she has posted in two areas of her office and on her Twitter page, is: “Challenge the status quo. Believe that mediocrity is a sin. Establish a sense of urgency. Make a positive difference. Be faithful.”
“She has very high expectations of her students, her staff members and herself,” fifth-grade teacher Vanessa Arispe said. “That really affects the climate. Failure is not an option.”
Arispe calls Staniszewski “tenacious,” someone who doesn’t give up on a child or a family.
The principal’s relationships often went beyond the school doors, teachers said.
She’s shared her personal phone number with students and at times has picked up a student herself who did not have a ride to school or missed the bus, teachers said.
“There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for her students and her families,” fifth-grade teacher Edie Johnson said. “She will truly be missed, really.”
Staniszewski is warm, Arispe said. Whether it’s dancing alongside student folklorico dancers, attending a graduation or a quinceañera or sitting with a staff member in the emergency room after a loved one was brought in, Staniszewski has been there.
“We’re going to miss her, but I think her legacy really will continue,” Arispe said. “I think what she started will continue.”
When asked to describe their principal, fifth-grade students described her as “nice,” “supportive,” “concerned” and “spectacular.”
One former student attesting to their claims is Jorge Vargas, 22, of Denton. He met Staniszewski in 2002 when he was a 9-year-old student at Wilson.
Vargas describes their relationship as “one of a kind.”
“She’s done a lot for my family. Even though we’re not related, she has really helped out my family a lot,” he said.
Over the years, Staniszewski helped him establish legal status and residency in the United States and helped him in applying for and receiving a Habitat for Humanity home that he and his family will move into next month. Vargas said she’s also helping his younger sibling prepare for college this fall.
“I think she sees the potential and motivation that people have … and she wants to encourage people to go further in life,” he said. “When we go through hard times, she’s there. When we go through good times, she’s there.”
In addition to Vargas, Staniszewski has mentored other students and helped them navigate immigration issues, obtain a driver’s license and apply for college, she said.
Upon retiring, Staniszewski, an avid runner, said she’s registered to participate in five half-marathons. She said she also intends to commit more time to family, volunteer at area schools and possibly pick up part-time work. The future is an open canvas.
“I kind of feel like I’m young enough to do something else. I don’t know what that ‘else’ is yet,” Staniszewski said. “I’m leaving with a full heart. I think we’ve accomplished great years here, and I think I’ve taken the ship as far as we can go.
“Full heart, no regrets.”
BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.