A Milwaukee assistant principal who expanded her school’s career-pathway program and oversees student wellness and well-being is the 2023 National Assistant Principal of the Year.
Misa Sato has been an assistant principal at the 1,400-student Reagan High School since 2018.
She was one of three finalists for the award, which is given by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Mike Roemer, Reagan High School’s principal, called Sato “a rock star.” He and fellow assistant principal Kelly Carpenter cited Sato’s exceptional interpersonal, relationship-building, and listening skills, as well as her empathy, as hallmarks of her leadership.
“When you’re a principal, that’s the most important thing: your supporting cast,” Roemer said. “She’s a rock star. Do you know how lucky I am?”
Roemer hired Sato as a science teacher about 10 years ago, wowed by her passion for students, high energy, and deep knowledge of chemistry and biology. He was also struck by her organizational skills—a trait that would later allow her to have a deep impact on the school’s instructional and support programs.
As a science teacher, Sato brought a fresh perspective to common unit planning in the science department, which then spread to other areas of the school, said Carpenter, who also taught science with Sato.
She built common planning time into the schedule, so that science teachers, for example, would have their release periods at the same time so they could collaborate on lessons, Carpenter said.
“She just has this way of bringing people together in terms of saying, ‘What about this? What about that?’ and seeking their feedback instead of charging forward,” Carpenter said.
“It’s something that she still does today. It’s distributed leadership at its finest. ‘How can we bring this in? What are we missing?’ ”
Sato’s portfolio as assistant principal runs the gamut. Among other things, she oversees the career-pathways element in the school’s International Baccalaureate program, leads equity efforts, manages freshman induction and orientation, and contributes to crisis planning, athletics, and school climate and culture. She also leads the school health team.
“She is in charge of programing—it’s the most important thing to having a well-run school,” Roemer said.
During the pandemic shutdown, Sato was in charge of the school’s reopening plan. Like many schools across the country Reagan High School had an issue with student attendance. Sato was instrumental in helping to reach those students who weren’t attending school and connecting them with supports when they returned to campus, he said.
“She has a heart of gold, and really puts students first—and not just their academics,” Carpenter said. “Her primary focus is the mental health and well-being and the safety of our students. She truly cares about the students and wants to make sure that any decision we are making is in the best interests of students.”
“There is not a kid, that if they are dealing with an issue, that she is not trying to find out how she can get those kids help,” Roemer said.
Expanding career opportunities
Sato’s signature accomplishment may be in expanding the school’s career-pathways program. The school had found that about half of its juniors and seniors weren’t interested in participating in the IB diploma program and instead wanted to explore career opportunities.
She oversaw the addition of career opportunities, including in health care fields. That worked involved budgeting, organizing job fairs, and partnering with organizations and local businesses where students could gain working experience while in school and work after graduation. She also started a “grow your own” program to build a pipeline of future teachers, through a partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
She’s made it work, in part, through her exceptional organizational skills.
“It’s crazy how much she is organized,” Roemer said.
Under her leadership, the career program has grown from about 15 to 155 students, and students are getting jobs right out of high school, Roemer said.
Despite the program’s growth, Sato still knows every child’s story, as well as what they hope to do after graduation, Roemer said.
“Misa can tell you, for each and every one of those kids, what they want to do, what their ambitions are,” he said. “She has a background and story for each one of those kids. It’s amazing.”
Sato, who is on maternity leave, has said she wants to be a principal, and she has ringing endorsements from both Carpenter and Roemer. Carpenter said she’d love to work with Sato as an assistant principal.
“She is going to make a fantastic principal,” Roemer said.