By Allison Jarrell
Tom Ressler never wanted to be a principal. And to be honest, he wasn’t really too keen on being one at San Juan Hills High School when he was first appointed to the position in 2008. After opening its doors to the first class of freshmen the year prior, San Juan Hills was mired in controversy, mainly because the school’s neighboring residents weren’t a fan of the location.
Ressler took on the job regardless, and he hasn’t regretted a day since.
“It was the best thing to ever happen in my life,” Ressler said on a recent sunny afternoon in his office. “I couldn’t have had a more enjoyable, fulfilling time.”
Ressler worked hard to change the public’s perceptions of the school, always inviting prospective students and community members to visit the campus. Today, thousands of families arrive on visiting day to listen to students talk about their positive experiences at the school.
“I’ve always had this saying, ‘If you’re going to hate us, at least know who you hate,’” Ressler said. “I enjoy letting people know what we have to offer. We have good kids and good families, so in that sense it was easy, but there was a changing of attitudes that had to take place.”
After seven years of watching the school transform and its students thrive, Ressler will be retiring following the senior class’ June 19 graduation. With more than 30 years in education under his belt, he’s looking forward to seeing what the next 30 have in store for him and his wife, Cindy.
Ressler began his career in education as a teacher and coach at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove. He later took a job as an English teacher and coach at Capistrano Valley High School and went on to spend 22 years there working his way from athletic director to principal before coming to San Juan Hills High School.
Ressler said he enjoyed watching the attitude change in the community as San Juan Hills gained momentum and matured as a school, transitioning from a freshmen-only student body to offering varsity sports and a variety of after-school programs.
“Now we’re a problem because everyone wants to come here,” Ressler said. “I’m proud because I think that reflects the big picture. Our kids are good kids. Our teachers are good teachers. We are one of the great high schools in the community. When people think of San Juan Hills now, they think of a pretty darn good school.”
Ressler was honored as Educator of the Year by the San Juan Capistrano City Council in 2013, and last year San Juan Hills earned the fourth-highest graduation rate in Orange County at 99.6 percent, a “pleasant surprise” for Ressler.
But the long-time principal said he’s happy ending this chapter of his life on a high note and a “good sense of fulfillment.”
Fellow San Juan Hills educator, sports fan and friend Robert Spiers, a six-year history teacher at the school, said Ressler’s style of leadership has been nothing short of “fantastic,” from his welcoming personality and open door policy to his involvement in the students’ extracurriculars.
“The administration takes turns going to events, but even if someone was already there he’d say, ‘I’m going to go anyway,’” Spiers recalled. “He’s going to be greatly missed.”
Ressler said he enjoys watching the kids share their talents—whether it’s a choir concert, a football game or an art show.
“All the testing, all the data, it’s meaningless if the kids don’t believe that they’re cared for,” he said.
Every day Ressler spends time in the school’s halls, visiting with kids, making them laugh and practicing a firm, strong handshake. Ressler tells them the handshake is practice for a job interview in the not-so-far-off future. It’s also practice for graduation day next week, when Ressler will shake the hands of each senior and bid farewell to the Stallions of San Juan Hills High School.
To see a song-filled goodbye from the students and staff at SJHHS to Ressler, visit the school’s homepage at www.sjhhs.org.