EUREKA — Eureka is a town where the high school is the heart of the community. And students here say the school's principal has won over their hearts and the hearts of their parents in a way the school hasn't seen in a very long time.
Tuesday, the halls at Tintic High School were quiet and empty. But outside the school and down Eureka’s Main Street more than half of the 109 students enrolled at the school walked out in support of Principal Jaren Wadsworth, whose contract was not renewed.
"He's become more than a teacher to us. He's become one of our role models and someone we look up to, and we don't want to see him leave,” said McKayla Wahlberg, a senior at the school who helped organize the student protest.
The students say the principal has improved test scores, ignited school spirit and got students excited about learning.
Monday night, the school board voted to let him go at the end of the school year, despite emotional appeals from students and parents to keep him. The school board offered no explanation.
Kodey Hughes, the superintendent of the small Tintic School District, said the district would not explain the reasons Wadsworth was let go.
"We do recognize that our students are involved and our teachers and community, because (of how) small we are, but we are not able to comment on personnel matters," Hughes said.
Wadsworth remained inside the school during the protest but said he was humbled and appreciative of the support he was receiving. He will finish his second year as principal and head teacher at Tintic High. In addition to administrative duties, he teaches several subjects at the school.
Mark Matulovich, a ninth-grader, credits Wadsworth with helping him overcome his struggles in school. "I was just bad, and he helped me through that. He fought for me, so I'm going to fight for him," he said.
Mark’s mother, Crystal Matulovich, agrees and spent the morning protesting with her son.
"Because of Mr. Wadsworth, he has turned his whole life around, and he is doing great,” she said. “He's really started to pay attention and learn and do what he's supposed to do because of one person believing in him.”
Other parents, including lifelong resident Cory Wall, said Wadsworth's departure will be a tragedy for the community's future. "There's a lot of school spirit, and we've never had that before,” he said.
Parents and students blame small town politics. Talk around town is that Wadsworth's new approach offended a few longtime residents and school employees. That is also the belief of Eureka Mayor Milt Hanks, who supports Wadsworth as principal, but fears the situation is creating a big division in the town.
"He did make some changes,” Hanks said. “He does believe in discipline. He does believe in quality education, and sometimes those things rub people the wrong way.”
Wall points to what he believes Wadsworth has taught the students beyond what is in their textbooks.
“The future of these kids, to have that integrity and respect, and I think that's more important in life than a lot of things you can learn in school," Wall said.
Students and parents said they won't give up on trying to convince the school board to reverse its decision. They point out they may get the last word this fall, as three of the five school board members are up for re-election.