After 14 years, Principal Bill Stenger will retire.
When Robert E. Willis Elementary School opened 14 years ago, second-grade teacher Laurie Rahn had wanted a sports-themed classroom.
She could not afford the real sports bench she wanted, so when her principal, Bill Stenger, arrived in the parking lot with a load of cut wood, she was shocked. He told her exactly how to paint it — with long, slow strokes — and then he drove away.
She hauled the pieces home and painted them cherry red.
“The night before open house, he was in my room with a drill putting this bench together,” Rahn said, pointing at the 6-foot-long bench. “Kids still use this.”
Stenger, 66, will retire in June after more than 40 years as a public educator. His replacement — Myakka City Elementary School Principal Kathy Price — was announced March 1 and is slated to start in the new role July 1.
“I will miss this,” Stenger said from his office at Willis. “It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been doing for 44 years — that’s two-thirds of my life.”
Stenger knows his calling is true. For a year between 1994-1995, he owned a construction business.
“I knew right away I wanted back into education,” Stenger recalled.
He has not wavered since. When times were challenging, he said he remembered that although the grass may seem greener on the other side, “you still have to mow it and edge it.”
“When you know this is what you do, you deal with it,”
Under Stenger’s leadership, Willis Elementary School has maintained an “A” grade from the Florida Department of Education, despite changes in how tests are conducted. In fact, Willis is the only school in Manatee County besides Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary to keep an “A” for the last 14 consecutive years.
Stenger attributes the success to the hard work of teachers, parents and students working together to meet children where they are and inspire a passion for learning.
“I don’t have a magic (method),” Stenger said. “The success of Willis doesn’t come from me. The success of Willis comes from the teachers, the parents and the students. My role is to facilitate that and to provide the resources they need.”
Staff members said Stenger has prioritized professional development, offering teachers training on everything from bullying to curriculum. He also does not micromanage, but is meticulously organized and sets clear expectations.
“He understands that teachers know what’s best in their classrooms,” first-grade teacher Jenny French said. “He gives us a lot of trust.”
Teachers said Stenger has served lunches when needed and is even known to occasionally have warm cookies delivered to teachers’ mailboxes “just because.”
“Staff is willing to go above and beyond because he returns that to them 10-fold,” said Susie Johnson, who started at Willis 14 years ago as a first-year teacher and now serves as student support specialist. “He makes decisions on what’s best, not what’s convenient for him. He sees the good in people and he sees the potential in people.”
Stenger said the role of a principal over the decades has morphed from one of an administrator to that of educational leader. He and other principals now scour student data looking for evidence of learning gaps.
Last year, he worked with the PTO to purchase the Making Meaning, a program aimed to improve reading comprehension. This year, he added the “Being a Writer.”
“I don’t believe that Willis is any better than any other school,” Stenger said. “Everybody works hard and does the best that they can. Teachers at other schools work just as hard and sometimes harder. Kids are kids.”