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Saratoga Springs High School’s Principal, Michelle Tsao, Leads by Example

'Saratoga Living' checks in with our latest Power Player as she navigates education in the time of COVID.

Michelle Tsao worked in the Ballston Spa, Shenendehowa, Queensbury and Averill Park school districts before becoming principal of Saratoga High. (Katie Dobies)

When you’re a kid, principals get sort of a bad rap. At least in my day, they were the ultimate designated disciplinarians, whose offices you would wind up in if you were caught being insolent. Sure, they led assemblies, made announcements and visited classrooms, but the less you saw of them, the better. 

Therein lies the problem. All these years later, I’m still wondering what exactly a principal does. “The role has changed over time,” explains Michelle Tsao (pronounced Tzow), current principal at my alma mater, Saratoga Springs High School. “The role of the past used to be primarily managerial, and over the last 20 or so years, it has shifted towards instructional leadership in addition to the other managerial and operational functions.” For instance, the principal of old might’ve been in charge of teachers’ allocation, distribution and enforcement of bathroom passes. That runs in stark contrast to the types of hands-on tasks Principal Tsao has been executing since COVID struck, which include getting students and teachers up to speed on the school’s virtual platform, Canvas, and helping set up the complex latticework that is Saratoga High’s hybrid school week (it’s still hybrid at press time). She’s even helped set up a self-care module in Canvas, specifically for teachers, who’ve had it particularly rough during the pandemic. “It’s been a lot to shift to, mentally,” she admits, “but our students and teachers have done an amazing job.”

Speaking of that hybrid schedule, Saratoga High has separated its population of a little more than 2,000 students into two main groups (or “cohorts”). Each group meets on a staggered schedule, two times a week in person and three days online. There’s also a “priority” group, which comes to school four days a week, and yet another made up of all of the students whose parents opted to either hold them out of in-person classes entirely or switch them to virtual at some point during the year. While one might expect this to be a logistical nightmare, Tsao says that the transition to a hybrid model has been a relatively smooth one. She offers up the all-virtual kids as an example: “Our virtual students follow the normal schedule, so they ‘go into’ their classes as if they were in person, except they’re online,” she says. “It’s not a separate school or teachers; it’s their regular schedule, and the reason we created it this way was for fluidity between different instructional models.” So, hypothetically speaking, if students were all vaccinated by this April and able to return to school full time, they wouldn’t be skipping a beat.

“We’re all Type A personalities, and we’re living in a Type C situation,” says Saratoga High Principal Michelle Tsao, seen here with assistant principals (from left), Stacey Ralston, Johanna Friedman, Kevin Wolpert and Cody Conley. (Katie Dobies)

As organized as it all may sound, by no means has this year been a walk in the park. “Educators are planners,” Tsao says. “The hardest part has been having to be so flexible in a time of uncertainty. We’re all Type A personalities, and we’re living in a Type C situation,” she says, with a chuckle. “You have to just laugh and go with it.” Thankfully for Tsao, this isn’t even close to her first rodeo. 

Tsao, who grew up in Oneonta and is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University at Albany before serving as an economics and social studies teacher at Ballston Spa High School for six years. She then switched gears to high school administration, landing an assistant principalship at Queensbury and then Shenendehowa. She was eventually named principal at Averill Park High School in 2015, before taking on the role of principal at Saratoga three years later. 

Call it a hang-up, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Tsao still gets a steady string of Saratoga’s naughtiest ne’er-do-wells sent to her office—even during a global pandemic. Thankfully, she says, it’s a rarity these days. Sure, students do get “referrals” (education-speak for “in trouble”) and might have to speak to an assistant principal or even Tsao herself (virtual screw-ups might get a phone/Zoom call to a parent or even an in-person visit), but overall, Saratoga’s kids are all right, despite the lot they’ve been handed this year. “Our students are wonderful,” she says. Phew. 

Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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