Wilson High’s ‘Ram Man’ is Washington State Principal of the Year

Wilson High School Principal Dan Besett calls himself “incredibly lucky.”

If pressed for the secret to his success, he’ll tell you “I hire well.”

The Tacoma School Board honored him last week after he was named 2017 Washington State High School Principal of the Year by the state principals association.

A red-faced Besett stepped to the microphone and uttered a simple, “Thank you.” Then he credited his supportive staff and school community for the win.

But Wilson kids and staff members say the leader they call The Ram Man, after their school mascot, deserves the recognition.

“He leads by example,” said Bernadette Ray, who is in her fourth year as assistant principal at Wilson.

Math teacher Michelle Birge, who nominated Besett for the award, said it’s impossible to tell when her boss is having a bad day.

“His approach is consistent,” she said. “He never rules with emotions, unless they’re positive emotions. He’s not afraid to praise people. But it’s not fake praise. He inspires staff to be better people.”

Besett, 61, led Wilson to six consecutive state School of Distinction awards, beginning in 2011. Schools are chosen for the honor by virtue of their improving test scores and graduation rates over a five-year period. By winning six years in a row, Wilson set a state record.

State statistics from the class of 2015 (the most recent posted online) list Wilson’s four-year graduation rate at nearly 94 percent — the highest of any of Tacoma’s comprehensive high schools.

Besett said support from district administrators and the school board helped expand student options districtwide. He helps steer students toward those options, including after-school and summer classes, online credit retrieval courses, the school district’s downtown Willie Stewart Academy and high school completion programs at local two-year colleges.

“We don’t give up on any student,” Besett said.

Sophomore Semariah Williams said she has watched Besett help friends who are having a hard time academically.

“If he sees you’re failing, he has a meeting with you and your counselor,” she said. “He helps you graduate.”

For high achievers, Wilson offers 14 advanced placement classes, as well as college-in-the-high-school classes. Both offer students the chance to earn high school and college credits.

But Besett said he advises students to avoid cramming their schedules with too many high-powered classes. Better to focus and do well in two or three of them, he says.

Wilson wasn’t always known for its academic achievements. When Besett arrived as assistant principal in 2000, Wilson had a reputation for school spirit and athletic programs, he said.

Besett had just returned from his third stint at the American International School of Lagos, Nigeria. The Tacoma School District and the Nigerian school had struck up a partnership, fostered by the U.S. State Department, in the 1960s. Tacoma sent administrators and teachers to the African nation until the partnership ended a few years ago.

Besett said his time in Africa “shaped my life, my family and my philosophy of education.” He and his wife, Elaine, an educator, took their daughters — both toddlers at the time — with them to Nigeria.

In Africa, he saw the high value people place on education and the high regard they hold for educators.

“I realized how much we have in the United States,” he said.

When he was named Wilson’s principal in 2005, he told The News Tribune: “I'm really looking forward to it. I’ve got lots of energy.”

Those who know Besett say that energy hasn’t flagged.

If you visit the principal’s office at Wilson during a typical school day, you’re not likely to find Besett at his desk. Instead, he’s walking the halls, visiting classrooms, checking in with faculty and students.

After school, he tries to hit as many student activities as possible, from sports events to job fairs.

“Everybody here knows him,” said sophomore Ryan Moore, one of the school’s Marine Corps Junior ROTC members. “He’s always out and about.”

“He’ll drop everything to help you, and he gives you the best possible resources,” said ROTC member Gage Loney, a sophomore.

A photo on Besett’s office wall from a previous year’s graduation in the Tacoma Dome shows a sea of graduates awash in Ram red, white and blue. A smaller photo inset into the frame is a shot of Besett, photographing the graduates from the stage.

He started taking photos as a teenager, when he was sports editor of Seattle’s Chief Sealth High School yearbook.

Today, his photos of Wilson athletes, actors, musicians and other students show up on a school Wall of Fame, as well as elsewhere around the school. After a game, he gets emails from students asking if he has a shot of them on the field or the court.

“My goal is to take pictures of as many kids as possible,” he said.

Besett calls few staff meetings. Instead, he prefers to communicate directly through email, or in person. He says he tries to respond to email by the end of each day — at most, by the next day.

“I never leave the office with the message light on my phone,” he said.

Staff members say he’s often the first person at school in the morning and the last to leave at night.

Besett sometimes worries about his intensity.

“I’m really competitive,” says the principal, who’s a former coach. “My staff knows it. They’re good at telling me to relax, calm down, take a breath.”

There’s been little time for that over the years. In addition to the nuts and bolts of running a high school and stepping up academic achievement, Besett has overseen a phased remodeling project throughout his years as principal.

Wilson opened in 1958 with a dozen buildings spread across the campus. Over the years, the school district has been working to consolidate them. The first phase of remodeling was completed in 2006. This school year, a new academic wing opened, along with a remodeled gym and pool.

Besett has been busy collecting sports memorabilia for a showcase in the refurbished gym. He’s got jerseys signed by three Trufant brothers — Marcus, Desmond and Isaiah — all former Rams who went on to NFL careers. He’s got the uniform worn by swimmer Kaye Hall (later Kaye Greff) at the 1968 Olympics, when the 17-year-old Wilson student returned from Mexico City with a pair of gold medals.

Construction on a new track and field and a new music building should wrap up this summer.

“I hope to say good-bye to the construction people in August,” he said.

After nearly 40 years in education, Besett thought about retiring this year. But he decided he wants one last school year at Wilson — a quieter one, undisturbed by the sound of heavy equipment. So he plans to retire after next school year.

“I never wanted to be anything other than a high school principal,” he said. “I’ve got another year left in me.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo