Aug. 22—DANVILLE — New Danville High School Principal Jacob Bretz says the best part of working at the high school and with Danville School District 118 is the people.
"From the moment I started, I was welcomed with open arms," Bretz said. "It's a town, and a district, that's very proud of its past and its traditions but is always welcoming and wanting to include people in that history and to be a part of that history."
He said he's made so many great relationships with staff and students.
"It really is the people, and the kids here, they really are so resilient. It's hard to explain. There's just something about the kids that go to school here, that I really admire how they take care of each other and how they treat each other," Bretz said. "It's not perfect. There's always going to be issues or conflicts. I told the kids in the (back to school) assembly, it's like we're a small town, like packed into one building. Sometimes it feels like we're literally on top of each other at various times throughout the day. So, things are bound to happen when you put that many people in one small space; but they're so accepting of each other."
He heard in the hallway during the first week of school, one girl complimenting another girl she didn't know about her hair.
"That stuff happens around here more often than I think people realize or want to think that it does," Bretz said. "And it's really neat to be a part of."
Bretz, 38, is starting his 17th year with the school district, and his first as DHS principal following the retirement of former Principal Tracy Cherry. He started in the principal office on July 5, after the June 29 storm caused power outages, and hasn't had time to decorate his office with the few items he said he has.
He grew up in Springfield, graduated from Springfield Southeast High School in 2003, then graduated with a bachelor's degree in history and minor in secondary education from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2007. He graduated with a master's degree in Educational Policy, Organization, and Leadership from the U of I in 2012.
He student taught at North Ridge Middle School in Danville, was hired there but then over that summer he was switched to Danville High School. He was kind of disappointed initially, because it was going to be comfortable for him at North Ridge.
He started as a U.S History and World Geography teacher in 2007 at DHS and has been there ever since. He taught at DHS through 2013, served as assistant principal through 2023 and is now principal.
"I knew I wanted to be a history teacher," Bretz said. "I just really enjoyed my time at North Ridge better than my other high school placement I had in a different district."
He student taught with Jeannie Filicsky, who he still stays in touch with.
Bretz also recently came full circle with a student he taught in 2008-2009 at a charity basketball game, seeing that student now as an adult.
Bretz had no other ties to Danville and Vermilion County prior to coming here to student teach, but he said he had a distant memory of traveling through Danville and stopping at the Gilbert Street McDonald's as a boy on a family trip to visit relatives in Indianapolis.
He currently lives in Urbana with his wife, Natalee, who works in the Urbana school district, and their two sons, Elmer, 6, and Marvin, 2.
Bretz said he's very committed to the Danville school district.
"I'm all about being a Viking and I love it here," he said.
Bretz has already had an assembly for students, who are seeing some new cell phone policy and dress code changes, such as ripped jeans being allowed.
Sunday night phone calls to families also continue by Bretz as Cherry had done, about what's coming up for the week at DHS. He apologizes to the parents on how long his initial messages have been.
He said he's heard students say 'I heard your message, my mom makes me listen to it with her every Sunday night.'
His big theme is he wants everyone at the school to be seen, heard and safe. He ends the Sunday night phone messages with "You are seen. You are heard. You Matter. And you can do it."
"Kids are walking into the building every day feeling a wide variety of emotions, and that can even change by the day. It's OK to feel like that," Bretz said.
He wants to recognize and celebrate students' hard work in academics and athletics.
He has worked with graphic design teacher Joanna Howard to make weekly calendars for athletics and other activities and academic notes to email to parents. One too could say what tests are being given during a week, so parents know.
DHS has seen fewer students. DHS had 951 students at the start of the new school year this month. Registrations are still occurring. The school will likely have about 1,152 students. The school usually started the year with a little more than 1,200 students in the past.
Bretz said he wants to continue on the great work that Cherry and other principals who came before him did.
Bretz said his mentors have included former principals Cherry and Kim Norton, and in teaching, Harith Tamimie, Ted Houpt and Mark Bacys.
"I've always felt genuinely cared about here," Bretz said, adding that people cared about him as a person and wanted him to be here.
He said they're always trying to make DHS the best version of itself.