Costigan has no outside meetings scheduled and is looking forward to
catching up on other work.
When he arrives at school, however, there is no sign of the vice-principal,
who usually arrives earlier. A quick check of voice-mail confirms that he is
ill. Costigan is now also responsible for the vice-principal’s duties,
from staffing issues to student discipline.
No time to stop and think. Classes at St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in
St. Thomas start at 8:30. It’s time for Principal Costigan to get out in
the halls to check in with staff, then greet the arriving students.
"Have you seen Mr. X yet?" asks one teacher, barely a minute
later. Mr. X is away unexpectedly, and there’s a quick scramble to
identify a staff member to cover his classes for the day.
The hallways are getting busy. Costigan positions himself in the main hall;
it’s his goal to know all the faces, if not the names, of the more than
650 students in his school.
"Hey, Mr. Johnson!" Costigan calls. "How’s it going?"
"Pretty good, Mr. Costigan!" the student replies with a smile.
Costigan spots another student with a basketball, and they banter about who
would win a game between them.
A pair of tongue-tied Grade 9 students blush with pleasure to be singled out
for some friendly attention. It’s important to Costigan to help new
students feel they belong, which takes extra effort this year. Enrolment has
grown, and nearly one- third of the school population is in Grade 9.
The bell rings, and Costigan briskly tours the halls, gently but firmly
admonishing the last-minute stragglers: "Time to hurry up, ladies and
gents — you can tell the rest of your life history at lunch."
Once the halls are clear, Costigan checks in with picture day in the
cafeteria. He greets the photographers and praises the students who are
running the event. On the way out, Costigan spots a broken glass pane in one
of the cafeteria doors. He turns to the students waiting in line:
"Anyone know who did this?" They all shake their heads, although
there is some muttering about suspected candidates.
"I’m sure we’ll find out soon," says Costigan. "Kids in
this school are pretty good about telling us."
Costigan returns to his office for meetings with department heads. Things
seemed to be running smoothly, but there’s some discussion about helping
staff adjust to the challenges of increased enrolment.
At the end of a meeting, one of the administrative staff sticks her head in
the door. Costigan is not bothered by interruptions, and likes to be
accessible. His door is usually open during meetings. "There are some
parents here who’d like to speak with you," she says.
The parents don’t look happy. Costigan speaks with them in private, this
time with a closed door. They have a complaint about the way in which a
staff member has spoken to their son. After they leave, Costigan is puzzled
and a bit frustrated.
"What they describe is just completely out of character for this staff
member," he says. Based on the boy’s history, he suspects the parents
have been fed a story.
Then it’s time to head back into the hall for period change and more
chatting with students. While roaming the halls, Costigan makes friendly,
but pointed, comments about school uniform infractions. At the request of
the school council, most of whom are parents, St. Joseph’s implemented a
school uniform last year. Some of the older students try to rebel against
the dress code, often by claiming their uniforms are on back order. As a
30-year veteran of high school life, Costigan views these excuses with some
A school tour is interrupted by reports of unsavory characters out back —
former students with police records who like to hold court on school
property. Costigan hurries to the back lot. About 20 teens surround the two
young men. Costigan politely but firmly tells them to leave: "You
don’t belong here."
The group begins to disperse and Costigan returns inside. On the way, he
points out one of the girls who had been standing with the young men.
"She’s always been such a sweet girl, but now she’s in this crowd.
It breaks your heart," he says. Costigan’s daughter is the same age.
Next up: the cafeteria. Costigan likes to spend the first month of school in
the cafeteria while the junior grades have lunch. He walks up and down the
aisles, holding out a tray for the students to place their garbage. Although
Costigan cares about cleanliness — he constantly picks up litter from the
hallways — the tray functions more as a bridge to allow him to chat and
joke with the students while learning to recognize their faces.
When junior lunch finishes, it’s time for Costigan’s lunch. He just sits
down in the staff room when he’s called away. One student had pushed
another into a puddle. Costigan talks to the teens but chooses not to come
down hard on the boy who did the pushing. He suspects the other boy started
Just as Costigan returns to the staff room, the fire bell emits an
ear-splitting screech. The school is empty in about three minutes. Students
huddle together outside, waiting for the fire department. Puzzled teachers
approach Costigan: Is this a drill?
Firefighters find the answer: burned toast in the cafeteria set off the
alarm. Costigan shakes his head. More than half an hour has passed since the
fire alarm, and valuable class time has been lost.
After students are back in class, Costigan returns to the office. He returns
some phone calls, most of which involve trying to solve a problem. When he
comes out of his office, four students are waiting for discipline, mostly
for disrupting their classes. One boy is a wide-eyed Grade 9 student who was
accused of surfing pornographic sites on the school’s computer. The
allegation later proves to be false.
Costigan reprimands the boys, but in a friendly tone. "It’s often
just enough of a scare to send them down here," he says.
There isn’t much time to talk, however. The earlier troublemakers are out
back of the school again. Students say a fight is brewing.
As soon as Costigan appears outside, the lead youth becomes agitated.
"I wasn’t (expletive) doin nothin," he says, "I was just
talking to some chick and this (expletive) dude came up and said he was
gonna kick my (expletive)."
"Did he hit you?" Costigan asks calmly. The teen shakes his head.
"Well, I don’t know what happened, but I do know you’re not
supposed to be here. Now please leave."
Costigan watches until the youth and his friend walk away. The timing is
good, as students are filing in for the next class and the troublemakers
have lost their audience. On the way back into school, Costigan comments on
the teen’s obvious drug use. "We may need to call the police,"
Back in the office, everyone wants a bit of Costigan’s time. A teacher
pops in to complain about the students he had sent to the office. One of the
office staff tells Costigan that a student had been rude to the photographer
doing school photos — should the boy be brought into the office? Costigan
also learns that the mother of the boy accused of pornographic Internet
surfing believes he’s innocent and wants to talk to Costigan about it.
Then a head pops in his office door: "Jim, now the intruders are in the
school." And so they are — sauntering down the hallways as if they
own the place. Costigan firmly tells them to get out. But now it’s time to
call the police.
The police arrive quickly, but by then there is no sign of the youths. One
student comes forward. "They’re hiding in the bushes in the
back," she says.
The arrest takes place just as school is getting out, right in front of all
the students. Costigan looks on with some satisfaction. "I’m glad all
the students are watching this," he says. "It tells them that we
will deal with this kind of behaviour, and that we are going to keep them
Back in the office, he asks staff for the name of the girl who helped them
find the teens. "I want to thank her personally. That was really super
Later, Costigan and the staff laugh about the events of the day.
"Having a day there, boss?" ribs one teacher. The arrests are
particularly unusual. St. Joseph’s is in a rural setting, serving mostly
families from St. Thomas, a mid-sized town 20 minutes from London.
Costigan winds up his day by reviewing paperwork, e-mail and voice-mail.
He’s eaten about two bites of salad in his 10-hour day, yet his energy
remains unflagging. And there’s still an evening retirement party for a
former superintendent. Costigan is the last to leave the school and locks up
On the way out the door, he stops to pick up litter from the halls.
St. Joseph’s High School
London District Catholic School Board
Certified in 1973
Althouse College of Education, London