When Phillip Caudill walks out the door of Hager Elementary School for the last time as principal Dec. 31, it will be with mixed feelings.
He is taking the central office position of director of staff and student services for the Ashland Independent School District, so he is happy about that.
But he will be leaving behind the school where he has been teacher and principal for most of his education career, and he may not get the chance to say a proper goodbye to the kids that made his job there fulfilling.
What he also will leave behind, his associates say, is a school that met the COVID-19 challenge head on.
"He has the skill set that made him a top performer in the pandemic," said Lisa Henson, who is retiring from the position Caudill will fill. "He’s a planner, he pays attention to detail, and he always puts the needs of children first."
Like principals at other schools across the nation, Caudill was faced in the spring with the sudden and urgent need to teach children remotely for extended periods of time.
Ashland schools had non-traditional education plans in place for snow days, but not for weeks-long at-home learning.
"That was a very difficult time. We had no preparation. Ashland had never done NTI. It was on a Thursday and we were preparing (lessons) for 380 kids," he said.
By the end of the school year, faculty and staff were getting a grasp on the demands of long-term virtual education, and the district used the summer to pull together a long-term program.
Caudill has been principal at Hager for 10 years. Earlier in his career he taught special education there for four years and also student-taught when he was starting out. He was assistant principal at Ashland Middle School — then named Verity Middle School — for six years before returning to Hager as principal.
During one of his 20 years in education, he worked in the Jefferson County district, and even then had Hager pen pals who kept him connected with the school.
"It’s a very hard decision to leave a successful school like Hager. But if I have the opportunity to help more kids and staff across the district, that’s someting I’m willing and wanting to do," Caudill said.
"The hard part will be if the kids don’t come back into the building before I leave," he said. "I want them to be safe, but I want to see them other than on a computer screen," he said.
In his new position, Caudill will oversee special education, gifted and talented education and a number of other duties.
Caudill is known for incentive challenges like offering to be duct-taped to the wall if children meet reading goals. He hopes by the time he leaves Hager students will meet one last reading goal, for which he will don a costume and climb to the top of the school to portray the "Elf on the School."