Vikings’ new principal will focus on re-engaging students

Dustin Purnell’s commute hasn’t changed as he takes on his new job at North Salem High School.

The incoming principal of Salem’s oldest high school has for eight years worked just across the railroad tracks at Parrish Middle School, preparing kids from north central Salem to succeed in high school.

Now, he’ll follow them through to graduation.

As a high school principal, Purnell said re-engaging students and recovering from the academic and social effects of the pandemic are his top priorities.

“Our goals have to be to get kids connected to school. We want our students connected to North, not only to their classes, but to something outside of their classes that is of interest, that they feel like they belong to,” he said.

Purnell took over at North July 1, replacing Chad Towe who is leaving Salem for a new job in the Seattle area. Towe led North for three years.

The school has among the highest share of students from low-income families in the district, and houses the district’s newcomer program for refugee and immigrant students new to the U.S.

Improving North’s graduation rates has been a focus of principals and district leaders for years, and the school has seen large gains since 2015 followed by some backsliding during the pandemic.

Purnell said the school has a solid team of employees focused on making sure freshmen get off to a good start and following up with those starting to slip behind. He sees that work as critical to continue.

“My approach is going to be: listen and learn a lot. I want to see what’s working and what we think needs to be improved upon,” Purnell said.

Students should graduate from North ready to pursue a college or career of their choice.

“We want them to be able to find their passions,” he said.

Purnell studied finance and accounting at Corban University in Salem.

After several summers as a camp counselor, he realized he wanted to go into education, but it was too late to change his major. He pursued a graduate degree in education from Western Oregon University and began teaching business at Sprague High School. He spent eight years there before getting an administrator license.

Purnell was briefly an assistant principal at South Salem High School before moving to Parrish in 2015 He’s been there until starting at North this week.

“Working super closely with North the past couple of years has been really positive and I absolutely want to continue that with all of our feeder middle schools, making sure students feel connected before they set foot on campus,” he said.

North became an International Baccalaureate school in 2021, allowing it to offer college-level courses and IB diplomas, as well as certificates in career fields. North’s first class of IB students graduated this year.

Purnell said that program will continue to expand as more teachers get trained and the school can offer more IB classes.

Attending school activities evenings and weekends doesn’t leave much time for hobbies, but Purnell enjoys golfing with his sons. He has three boys, two of whom will be North students in the fall.

One thing won’t follow him from Parrish.

“Against probably my better judgment the last three years we’ve done a dunk tank at our promotion celebration,” Purnell said. Students collect their diplomas and get three chances to dunk a teacher who’s sitting in the tank. Purnell usually takes the last shift, getting thrown into the water about a dozen times.

“I’m still sore from two and a half weeks ago,” he said. But, he conceded, “it’s so much fun for the kids.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.