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Midvale Journal

Hail to Hillcrest High’s principal: The advocate for students

May 07, 2024 04:36PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High Principal Greg Leavitt, seen here at the school’s 2023 commencement exercises, will retire at the end of the school year. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

When 480 Hillcrest High students graduate May 29, so will their principal.

After 34 years in education, Greg Leavitt will hang up his cap and gown in June from the school building he helped build—the second in his career. 

During his tenure, he has impacted thousands of students, supported hundreds of teachers, mentored several administrators—and had his face grace an unknown number of T-shirts, cell phone PopSockets and air fresheners.

“Mr. Leavitt is a student advocate,” said Tom Sherwood, Canyons School District’s director of high schools. “He believes when we set the bar high enough, the students will reach it; Given the proper supports, all students can be successful.”

Leavitt didn’t dream of becoming an educator.

“Education for me was not necessarily a plan,” he said. “I decided I’d teach math even though I didn’t do well in math in high school. Even the first couple of classes in college, I didn’t do well. I just kept with it and started to blossom. It gave me an advantage in my teaching career when helping students who didn’t understand because I was one of those that math didn’t come easy to.”

Leavitt taught at Butler Middle in Cottonwood Heights.

“Math is straightforward; I like that about it,” he said. “As a teacher, I liked being connected to the kids. When we’d do fractions, I’d put on a chef’s hat, and we made cookies. They’d figure out how we’re going to increase this recipe and we’d have them for a week.”

Leavitt then was a counselor at Eastmont Middle in Sandy and in 1997, his first administrative appointment was at West Jordan Middle, where he served as an assistant principal for five years. 

Then, he was transferred to the now defunct Crescent View Middle School in Sandy, as an assistant principal before being named principal there. 

Current Eastmont Middle School principal Stacy Kurtzhals was his assistant principal and recalled Leavitt following his long-term plan.

“He is very innovative and willing to take risks,” she said. “His long-term vision was to make school the best possible for kids. He was the leader on the middle school vision of having teams within the school, so kids felt like they belonged. He was prominent on working with teachers in professional learning communities and making sure that teachers did their best work.”

Kurtzhals remembered Leavitt moving his desk in the hallway.

“He said, ‘I’m just going to be right here.’ He just wanted kids to see him and know he supported them and cared,” she said. 

Draper Park Middle Principal Chip Watson, Leavitt’s other assistant principal at the time, said that Leavitt stressed understanding students. That’s why Leavitt decided they needed to know what it felt like to be students, so the three administrators enrolled in beginning band class.

“He had the rule was you had to play something you’ve never played before. He played the trumpet,” Kurtzhals said, unaware that Leavitt had played it in high school. She learned the flute while Watson played the clarinet.

“We went to band class as often as we could to learn how to play our respective instruments and we all played in the Christmas concert,” Watson said. “We also went in every classroom and played, ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas.’ We were pretty bad, but the kids got a big kick out of it.”

Leavitt was a Crescent View administrator for nine years, including when in 2012, the school board voted to close the school in favor of building Draper Park Middle, where he then served as its first principal.

“I worked with the architects and built that from the ground up,” he said, unaware that in a few years, he would be principal at Hillcrest in Midvale and would repeat that process with the high school’s rebuild. “I learned stuff I didn’t know about myself. I liked looking at plans and saying, ‘This will work better. This is the flow of the hallway. This is the flow of the office.’ We messed up on Hillcrest’s office. Everyone has to walk around the secretary’s desk. I didn’t catch it and feel bad about that.”

Leavitt comes from simple beginnings. 

He grew up in Bunkerville, Nevada, a ranching and farming community in the desert, five miles southwest of Mesquite along Riverside Road.

“His family and his grandparents lived on the same street; it was a very rural upbringing,” Sherwood said, having visited the town with Leavitt during a desert road trip. “It was a small town; small enough where everyone knows everyone.”

As a boy, Leavitt, the oldest of five children, delivered the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Review Journal on his newspaper route. 

“I gave my money to my parents,” he said. “I never went without; I had everything I needed. I worked at almost every gas station in Mesquite, and I worked a lot as a restaurant dishwasher, cook or busboy.”

Leavitt was born with congenital glaucoma. While he doesn’t have sight in one end, he likely may have lost sight in both his eyes if not for the critical steps his parents took.

“As a kid, as a baby, my parents took me to the University of Utah Medical Center for treatments. There hasn’t been a year that I don’t have to visit the eye doctor two or three times a year,” he said.

His dad was a sixth-grade teacher, and his mom was a bank manager and a manager of a café. He grew up in Bunkerville after the 1950’s spike of childhood leukemia since the town was downwind of nuclear test sites and before the town boomed with 1,000 people in 2000.

Leavitt gets up at 5 a.m.—“I’m not much of a sleeper in; I jump up and get ready to go, but I always eat a nice breakfast with eggs and bacon and some orange juice”—before his 20-minute commute to school.

Once at school, he’ll problem-solve. It may be to help a student with poor attendance, or one who needs funds to participate in an activity. He had Hillcrest’s rebuild include a community center to provide students with showers, laundry facilities and a pantry.

“We always want what is best for kids. I think every principal does. When principals get to this level, you want your kids to succeed. You look out for them,” Leavitt said. “I try to make sure that students have the support they need.”

That’s something that School Community Council chairwoman and parent Stacey Timmerman appreciates.

“When you look at everything he does running his administration and the programs he’s introduced, it’s focused on the needs of the students,” she said.

Former Hillcrest Assistant Principal Jan Hansen said as a team, they looked to help the school community.

“He always wants to support the kid who’s struggling,” she said. “He knows he can make a difference here. He’s constantly tweaking this or fixing that.”

Simple things, like Taco Fridays, Leavitt introduced to recognize the students. 

“It was our way of saying thank you for going to class and doing what they’re supposed to do because kids don’t get recognized all the time,” Hansen said. “He was open to ideas; he knew where he wanted to lead the school.”

When Hillcrest graduates came to Leavitt to start an alumni association, he listened.

“We weren’t sure what kind of reception we’d get,” said Craig Conder, Hillcrest High Alumni Association president. “But he said, ‘Thank you guys. We’re charged with tearing down this building and I don’t really have a grasp of what people care about and should stay.’ Back then, he hadn’t been a Hillcrest guy for very long. I felt like we had an ally there, right off the bat.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leavitt looked for solutions and keep students in the forefront, Timmerman said.

“I enjoyed serving alongside him during COVID, watching him figure out how to help the kids still thrive,” she said.

Leavitt said it wasn’t ideal.

“We tried, but watching the kids, seeing their change and their gaps in learning, online learning didn’t work,” he said. “They stayed home, and they did work, but so many kids that missed the functional part of learning and the trial and error having a teacher in front of them, making sure they understood.”

Even during COVID, Leavitt connected with students.

Known for singing “Friday, Friday, Friday is my favorite day” every week during the school year, Leavitt felt it was important to keep the tradition students loved. So, he took a tricycle and rode it down a school hallway, as other teachers and administrators following in a golf cart, singing, “Friday” and posted the video for students.

“He would sing on ‘Friday’ and the kids just would roll their eyes—but secretly, they loved it. He endeared himself to them,” Timmerman said.

2017-18 student body president Boston Iacobazzi said when Leavitt sang ‘Friday,’ more so than a selection from that year’s musical as he’s known to perform at graduation, it unified the students.

“We made shirts that had his face on it with ‘It’s Friday’ to play along,” he said. “Mr. Leavitt was approachable for us students and open to listening to our ideas and finding ways to help us achieve them. He and the other male admin(istrators) did men’s drill with us, and he came to almost every football game and track meet and even now, he’s at unified sports events.”

Timmerman agrees.

“No matter how quirky he was, he could laugh at himself. A marketing class made and sold ‘Love it or Leavitt’ T-shirts with his picture and everyone wanted it,” she said. “He takes students out to breakfast to celebrate successes and cheers them on at their competitions. The vocal ensemble group went to New York and Principal Leavitt supported them at Carnegie Hall. Last year, he coordinated the mayor, school board, fire trucks to celebrate the state theater win. This past fall, when theater kids went to the Shakespeare competition, he was sitting around the campfire telling them a ghost story. All my kids have very specific memories of him.”

Union Middle Principal and former Hillcrest Assistant Principal Brenda McCann said at Hillcrest, “Greg’s an icon. Every year they put his picture somewhere and he just goes right along with it.”

Conder said students refer to Leavitt as “The Man, the Myth.” 

“One time I was there, and they had a goofy picture of him in high school on a poster and he just rolled with it,” he said. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes his job very seriously.”

While those are in jest, Hansen said, “One of my fondest memories is during COVID when the kids did a beautiful chalk art of him in a park. It was a tribute to his connection with the kids.”

Students cheer for Leavitt at football games as he often brings pizzas.

“Every football game, he hands out 40-50 pizzas,” McCann said. “He wants kids to have food so they can have fun and not worry. But he worries about the kids who aren’t involved, or the attendance kids who aren’t graduating. When students approach him, he likes to say ‘yes.’ His advice to me was, ‘Try to find a way to say yes, instead of no.’ So, I call him the ‘Yes Man.’ I used to tease him about that—‘I can say no because they’ll just go ask you and you’ll say yes.’”

Always the math guy, Leavitt calculated after nine years at Hillcrest, it’s time to retire.

“For me, it was adding up the numbers to retire. I’m 62. I have enough financing to live the next part of my life,” he said.

McCann said he’s been a successful educator.

“It’s amazing when you look at him coming from a little town to making some huge differences in kids’ lives,” she said.

Kurtzhals adds, “His legacy is creating a community of people who believe that students are first.”

Leavitt isn’t planning a big bash as he retires.

“I’ll go to the district reception and maybe have a barbecue after everything’s said and done. I’m going to take six months off to do anything I want,” he said, adding afterward, he will go on a church service mission. 

Conder said he heard Leavitt tell others, “‘Don’t call me; I’ll be on a boat.’ I don’t know if that meant he’ll be fishing or traveling the world.”

That is, after one last commencement. λ