After nine years at the helm, Matt Wight is leaving Apex High School to start the new Apex Friendship High School.
Wight isn’t shy to acknowledge that starting a new school from scratch will be difficult, between hiring dozens of staffers, setting up classes, clubs and sports teams, and coming up with ways to make students coming from three different high schools feel comfortable in a new setting.
But he did it once before, albeit on a smaller scale, when he oversaw the opening of Salem Middle School in 2004.
He said it was a great experience, which is why he volunteered to take on the challenge of opening Apex Friendship – even though it will mean leaving the school he loves, and his senior daughter, Jessica, at the end of this semester.
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“Bittersweet’s a good word,” Wight said recently in his office, which is covered in trophies and photos of some of the school’s recent state champion teams. “Mixed feelings. But it’s a good opportunity, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Wight will spend the spring and summer hiring teachers, coaches and other employees to run the school. It will start with about 1,300 students in ninth and 10th grades before gradually expanding to 2,500 students in all four grades.
He said he’s looking for people who are energetic, yet flexible, because they need to hit the ground running to create a cohesive culture on campus.
“When you’re starting a school ... the expectations are that you’ll have everything there is at any other school,” Wight said.
And not only staff efforts have to be there, he said. So does student buy-in, which might be even more difficult to foster at the start.
“We’re going to be drawing kids from three successful schools, and some of them don’t want to move,” he said. The high schools are Apex, Panther Creek and Holly Springs.
But John Evans, director of Apex High’s award-winning NAF Academy program in information technology, said he sees no reason why students and staff at Apex Friendship won’t rally behind their new leader.
“His door’s open and his mind’s open,” Evans said. “And that’s great for me because I’m basically a school within a school. I’m principal, guidance counselor, teacher. So it’s nice that I can go bounce things off of him.”
The district has not yet named a principal, permanent or interim, to lead Apex High after Wight leaves.
Chris Stapleton, the school’s yearbook teacher, said he’s grateful all eight years of his teaching career have been spent under Wight.
“To the extent that I’m good or competent at my job, it’s because of him and the freedom he allows for creativity,” Stapleton said.
Wight’s daughter Jessica is in Stapleton’s class this year, serving as yearbook editor. Matt Wight said she’s upset that he will no longer be a constant presence at school for the end of her senior year.
But he’s excited he might able to attend more of her games and other events next semester since he won’t be tied up with everything that comes along with the principal job, at least for now.
Wight said he also hopes to be able to speak at graduation, though, to find closure and say goodbye to the senior class.
“You certainly form a bond with them,” Wight said. “But we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Either way, I’ll at least be with them in spirit.”
As he’s looking back on his nine years, he said, he remembers both the highs and the lows. His very first week on the job, the student body president died in an accident, which Wight said immediately made him aware of the weight the job puts on a principal’s shoulders.
But he also remembers the good times, like seeing students graduate after struggling, or hiring “a bunch” of former students who wanted to come back as teachers or coaches.
“That’s a testament to the culture here,” Wight said.
He knows he won’t be able to recreate such a culture at Apex Friendship immediately, but he also doesn’t want to. He’s going to bring some ideas from Apex High, and probably some teachers, but he said the new school will have its own distinct culture based on the diverse, achievement-minded communities it will draw from.
“I understand that there are high expectations,” Wight said. “But that’s good. I like that.
“No one is going to out-work me. I’ll put in the time and the effort to make their high school years special. They deserve nothing less.”