By Chris Collins
When Ben Merrill strolls the halls of Baker High School this fall his mind will no doubt drift back to an earlier time in his life.
But, he'll have to remain in the grown-up world where he's been named the new Baker High School assistant principal, replacing Gwen O'Neal.
O'Neal has been named Brooklyn Primary School principal. Troy Fisher, Brooklyn principal for the past nine years, is moving to Newberg to work as a principal at a school there.
It's been 16 years since Merrill was a high school senior walking the halls that he's always wanted to return to.
"I'm excited to work with the staff I admired as a student," he said during a Tuesday interview.
He says some of the teachers still at the high school today are the very people who inspired him to become a teacher - particularly Dave Johnson, his math teacher and coach, and Adriene Bachman, his history teacher. He did his student teaching under Bachman after graduating from Boise State University.
"I wanted to be a history teacher," Merrill said, adding that he wanted to have the same relationship with his students as he'd had with his teachers.
"I loved high school," he says. "I never wanted to leave."
Merrill will be the assistant to Jerry Peacock, the same man who led the school during Merrill's high school days.
"I still call everybody Mr. and Mrs.," he said.
And although his position has changed, his esteem for the staff has not.
"I have a high level of respect for them," he said.
Merrill and his wife, Jennifer, a dental hygienist, were eager to return to his hometown because of their own children: 3-year-old Kaylee and 1-year-old Kellen.
"I don't ever intend on leaving," Merrill said. "I want my two kids to have the same experience as I did going to Baker schools.
"The teachers were so amazing," he said. "This really is a very, very special place. I wanted to come back and raise my family here."
His parents, Mike and Sheila Merrill, are happy their son and his family have returned home, as well. Sheila is the Baker City Herald's district circulation manager.
Ben Merrill comes to his new job after a year as the eastern region principal of the Baker Web Academy. His office is in the same room where he attended third grade in the former North Baker School building, the year his family moved to Baker City.
Merrill says leaving the Web Academy for his dream job is bittersweet because he so enjoyed his year at the Baker charter school.
"We made incredible progress moving toward our goals," he said.
Those goals included increasing the student participation in standardized testing and ensuring that more students completed their coursework during the year.
Merrill said the Web Academy and Baker Early College provide "an incredible option" for students who need a flexible schedule, those who want to work toward gaining college credits and for those who need an alternative learning environment.
Students must be highly motivated to participate in the program, however, Merrill added -
"Kids who are, do fantastic," he said.
Merrill earned abut $88,000 in his role as principal at the Baker Web Academy and will earn an estimated $86,590 in his new job. The Web Academy's pay scale is separate from that of the Baker School District.
Despite the pay cut, Merrill says he just couldn't pass up the opportunity to move to his alma mater.
Still, he's grateful for the experience he gained at the Baker Web Academy and looks forward to the charter school continuing to improve.
"The director and the board are going to take this place to an incredible level," he said.
Merrill began his teaching career in an Alaskan fishing village directly out of college at the age of 21.
"There was no running water," he said. "It was a rough, tough living experience.
"I got there and I really started to understand what life was like outside of Baker City."
From there he taught at Delco, Idaho, where he also served as head football coach and wrestling coach. The principal there advised him to pursue administration, and he started working toward his master's degree the next year.
He advanced his education through online study at the Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz. He is working on his education specialist degree of pre-doctoral study online through Capella University, which has its headquarters in Minneapolis.
Merrill was first hired as a principal at Riggins, Idaho, at the age of 26. And in 2008, he moved to the Notus, Idaho, School District where he served as the principal for Grades 7-12, and was the district superintendent as well.
In 2011, he was hired as principal of Kennedy High School at Mount Angel, always with the goal of returning to Baker City. That next year the position opened at Baker Web Academy.
As Baker High School's assistant principal, Merrill doesn't expect to have time to return to coaching, something he's done nearly every year of his career as an educator. But he expects to see plenty of sporting events.
"As vice principal, I plan to do a lot of athletic game supervision," he said. "I'm excited to go to games in an administrative capacity."
Merrill said he has worked with his predecessor, O'Neal, over the past year, coordinating student transfers between the Baker Web Academy and the high school.
"It will be very difficult to step into the shoes of Mrs. O'Neal," he said. "The first year, I plan to focus on trying to perform at the same level as Gwen."
He also has attended the school district's administrative team meetings and has been a regular at Baker School Board meetings.
His contract begins Aug. 1, but Merrill says he plans to spend some time at his new school after his Baker Web Academy contract ends on June 30.
"I want to jump in and try to learn as much as I can this summer," he said. "I want to hit the ground running."