CHAMPAIGN — Eleven days into his tenure as principal of Centennial High School, Scott Savage sat at the head of a conference table at the school with his fellow administrators and asked each of them to provide a reason to celebrate.

“I had a chance to watch a short clip from the Golden State Warriors,” he said. “When teams win championships, I always try to figure out, ‘What was your jam? What was your thing? And they were always very intentional about talking about something celebratory outside of their basketball world. …I think that’s something we have to do.

The seven reasons to celebrate were diverse, including a home closing, a family member getting a new job, and a grant being awarded.

Savage celebrated that in the presence of newly hired dean Cessily Thomas, the seven trustees, only two of whom are survivors of the previous administration, came together for the first time for a meeting.

“Now we can rock and roll,” Savage said.

Throughout his career as a teacher and administrator in both Champaign and the Chicago area, building relationships has always come naturally to Savage, whether it’s bonding with children or adults. That’s why when he leaves the house, he makes sure to wear a blue centennial shirt in hopes of striking up a conversation with a relative, student, or alumnus. That’s why the son of a longtime Champaign pastor gathered elders and church leaders for a coffee meeting on his first official day at work on July 1.

That’s why more than 18 years after attending Savage’s social studies class as a centennial student, Trent Meacham was excited as he listened to his former teacher at that July 1 reunion.

“He was just someone, as a teacher, who inspired a lot of respect but seemed to develop relationships very well,” the former Centennial and University of Illinois basketball player said. “A unique balance of being able to connect with people but also being able to command respect, which I think is a rare quality to be able to bring those two things.

“I think it’s because of his personality, his leadership qualities, his communication skills. I really enjoyed being a student in his class, because we were learning and having fun at the same time. I’ve always had respect for him.”

✻ ✻ ✻ For the 1988 centennial graduate, connections in Champaign run deep.

Every night when the parents came home from work and the kids came home from school, the doors were constantly open in the neighborhood near Centennial where Savage grew up. His parents, Lundy and Carolyn, seemed to know everyone, he said, and took on leadership roles in the community.

“I think I took it for granted back then, but now looking back I see (my dad) as a leader,” Savage said. “He was in a lot of meetings and he was big on kids’ programs. … (My mother was) equally influential in my life and in the entire Champaign-Urbana community.

After enrolling in Kenwood Elementary, Jefferson Middle School, and Centennial, Savage served four years in the military from 1988 to 1992, spending most of his time stationed at Pearl Harbor as part of the Barracks Security Force. navy, and also serving in Desert Storm.

Originally, Savage thought he would continue on a similar path and pursue a career in law enforcement, but he felt drawn to teaching. After leaving the military, he pursued a career in education, earning a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from UI before eventually receiving a master’s degree from Eastern Illinois.

During his time as a teacher from 1998 to 2004 at the Whitney Young and Centennial in Chicago, Savage said he found his bedroom had become “a safe space for kids who didn’t fit into certain clubs, cliques or groups”.

“I’ve always had kids in my room after school or in the morning, and I still stay in touch with a lot of those kids now,” he said. “I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but in today’s times, with how we deal with bullying and cyberbullying, making sure that all students have a place to adapt , it was something that was really important at the time.

“And I wasn’t as intentional about it then as I am now, but I think it was something that was part of my DNA, and maybe I got it from my dad and from my mother. They always accepted everyone.

Along the way, Savage became an IHSA basketball referee and eventually worked college games in the Missouri Valley and Great Lakes conferences, and he brought the same attitude.

“He was pretty straightforward, didn’t take any trash or anything like that,” said assistant manager Sonny Walker, who played on the Centennial basketball team in the early ’90s. He did not necessarily make the game around him. It was about the game of basketball, just playing the right way. I remember you couldn’t say too much, but he was really trying to educate and teach at the same time. They are very good referees, who teach during the game while they are refereeing.

✻ ✻ ✻During his tenure as an administrator, which began when he was hired as Dean of Centennial Students in 2004, he became increasingly curious about the role strong relationships played in academic success.

He left Champaign in 2006 to become vice-principal at Thornton Township High before becoming principal at MacArthur Middle School at Berkeley, Oswego East High and Bloom Township High. In 2019, he returned to a job as deputy director while pursuing his doctorate.

Last year, he completed his dissertation, titled “All Relationships Matter: How Restorative Practices Impact Out-of-School Suspensions, Dismissals to Office Discipline, and School Climate.”

Researching schools with different academic outcomes, Savage said he found that “schools that have stronger restorative practice strategies tend to have higher levels of achievement, even with low-income students and students of color. or students’ individualized education program.

The term “restorative practices,” Savage said, became misunderstood, especially after the passage of Illinois Senate Bill 100 in 2015, an unfunded mandate that sought to limit the number of suspensions and dismissals. Expulsions in Illinois Schools.

“I think what people started to do was interpret it as they thought it should, and students weren’t held accountable for dangerous behavior, especially around large groups. of students,” he said. “I’m very protective of that term and the work that goes with it, because I think what some people have equated with that is that students can kind of do anything, and that’s absolutely simply incorrect.

“It’s not to replace traditional school procedures, and it’s not a design to get rid of the options administrators have if students aren’t safe. It is really designed to end zero tolerance policies.

Savage became a certified trainer in restorative practices, which involves giving students a second chance as they work to heal relationships damaged by their misbehavior. Philosophy, however, begins by establishing these relationships in the first place.

Already, Savage has held “healing circles” for centennial teachers, who have turned out in large numbers, he said, to talk about the struggles they have faced over the past few years.

This relationship building, however, does not have to happen in a formal setting. This can happen through extracurricular activities or simply by making students feel comfortable in a particular teacher’s classroom, Savage said.

Building those relationships is more important than ever.

Centennial was forced to close several times last year due to gun-related incidents, including one in which a gun was brandished inside a building and another during which shots were fired in the field north of the building.

“I think climate is all over the place,” Walker said. “I don’t think it’s just Centennial. Being in the school system is everywhere.

“When I was in school we had gangs and stuff that was there, but that’s just a different time,” he added. “There were fights, but now it’s not so many fights, it’s more shooting. I guess the most important thing is access to guns for our children, which is an issue in self. Where do kids get these guns? I think the other side of the coin is, what available resources can we give our kids even if they want to go that route? What programs, what things can we do, what can we involve our children in?”

Walker thinks the inviting climate that Savage and the rest of the Centennial administration hope to create will be immediately apparent to students.

“We want our staff to have fun and get rid of the negative energy that we’ve had for the past few years and so on at Centennial,” he said. “We want to bring that good energy back to Centennial.”

✻ ✻ ✻Savage doesn’t wait for school to start to begin the process of connecting with students, staff, and community members. He has already met with various extracurricular groups and is about to meet with others, as well as parent and staff groups.

When freshmen arrive for orientation on August 18, the band will play outside the school and community members will be asked to line the sidewalk to cheer on the new students as they arrive.

“A tailgate shouldn’t happen just for a football game,” Savage said. “We should be celebrating before the kids start school.”

Savage said he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before the first day of class because of his excitement, and when the doors open the students will notice his presence.

“I like being with the students,” he said. “I have no interest in working at the district office. Nothing against the district office or the administrators, but I like being around the kids. I love being engaged in classrooms, I love being in hallways. I like punches. I like conversations.

“We really try to make our school a safe community space where we celebrate our students.”