No matter the weather, Burns Park Elementary School principal Chuck Hatt is outside every morning to welcome his students. Treading carefully on ice patches, I try to keep up with him on a February morning after a heavy snowfall.
Hatt, sixty-two, has owlish glasses and a wisp of a beard. As the kids arrive, he greets them all by name, teasingly asking several “Are you sorry it’s not a snow day?”
The buses that bring children from other neighborhoods used to unload in the school’s parking lot. When Hatt became principal five years ago, he moved the drop-off point to Wells St. Now the bus riders walk to school through Burns Park, like everyone else, “and it’s really a connection,” says parent Laurel Schroeder. That seemingly small detail, she says, exemplifies how Hatt “makes it feel like everyone’s school.”
When Hatt gets to his office on the second floor of the stately, 100-year-old building, a young boy is waiting for the principal–and bawling. As I step away, I hear Hatt say soothingly, “Do you want to take the little [stuffed] puppy dog with you? That could be arranged.” While they talk, I listen to a P.A. announcement that ends with a problem for the kids to ponder: How many teeth did a woolly mammoth have?
When the boy exits, looking calmer, Hatt hurries off too. It’s National Reading Month, and he’s volunteered to be a “mystery reader” in a second-grade class. We pass walls of student art and postings of some intriguing assignments. (Asked to “write a future letter to yourself,” one child prints, “I hope I can write the alphabet in cursive,” and “I hope I have lots of new friends.”)
In the classroom, Hatt reads from The Ice Horse, a historical story about harvesting ice on the Hudson River. He stops often to ask questions, and when the same four or five children keep raising their hands, he has the students pair off to discuss their answers with one another.
“Kids in the class who are introverts have equal intellectual capacity,” he explains, but aren’t comfortable speaking in front of the entire group. The pairings make sure everyone gets a chance to talk–and “language is the creation of thought.”
Burns Park is one of the district’s wealthiest schools, but some 15 percent of the kids qualify for free lunches. It is also ethnically diverse: 11 percent Asian, 9 percent each biracial and African American, and 6 percent Hispanic.
“A good school understands that we don’t sort students into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ learners,” Hatt says. The tensions of teaching the have-nots with the have-lots are real and complex, but he believes that “children have a tendency to grow into the intellectual life that surrounds them.”
Hatt previously taught at Pattengill and Bryant, then was the district’s literacy coordinator for a dozen years. He says he applied for the principal’s job, his first, because he wanted to “work directly with teachers, children, and parents on a day-to-day basis.”
Nestled in a tree-lined neighborhood popular with U-M faculty, Burns Park has long been a jewel of the Ann Arbor district. Its famously active PTO has stepped in when funding falls short. A couple of years ago, it spent $37,000 to buy more Chromebooks and iPads, and it makes sure that no child misses a special activity because of cost. The Burns Park Players’ popular musicals, performed mainly by school parents and students, are another honeypot. And the school tries to make the kids aware and proud of the school’s long history–helped by children who are second or third generation “Penguins” (the school mascot).
But, Hatt points out, all that history has a downside. “What do you do with a 100-year-old building whose plumbing needs to be replaced, whose electricity needs to be replaced?” he asks, adding that the school board will have some tough decisions to make. The aging infrastructure takes on added urgency because the school’s enrollment has jumped during Hatt’s tenure from 390 to 535 today, with most of the new faces in the new “Young Fives” program for pre-K children. To accommodate everyone, Burns Park had to bring in portable classrooms, which no one likes. “It’s hard to imagine a way to expand,” says Schroeder.
And there’s the shadow cast by the recent school shooting in Florida. On March 14, when older students in Ann Arbor walked out to support curbs on gun violence, Hatt and the Burns Park community decided to emphasize the school’s self-definition as a community of kindness He gave every teacher the picture book What Does It Mean to Be Kind? by Rana DiOrio to read aloud. Everyone was encouraged to wear Burns Park T-shirts to emphasize that they are part of a caring community.
The son of a Baptist preacher father and an English teacher mother, Hatt heard a lot about kindness and fairness growing up. The family moved around often because of his dad’s job; Hatt spent his kindergarten year in an otherwise all-black class in Chicago. He sometimes asks Burns Park kids if they can identify him in the class picture–and they “never say, ‘You were the only Caucasian,'” he says. “They say ‘You have big ears.'”
He graduated from high school in Allen Park in 1974–and then flunked out of Central Michigan. He partied a lot, he admits, and “I went to each class once or twice. I wasn’t ready.”
He wound up in Houston, where he met his wife, Vickie Stern Hatt, through a religious group. He got a B.A. in history from the University of Houston, later adding an M.A. in English and elementary education from EMU.
Hatt sometimes wakes up at night worrying about a school issue. But on the job, “he’s unfailingly outgoing, friendly, and responsive,” says Burns Park dad Bill Zirinsky. He adds it’s “very satisfying” to have a principal “who is enjoying himself as much as he is.”
The Hatts–Vickie is now retired after her own teaching career in Taylor–have four grown sons: Chuck III, Brendan, and Nathan Hatt, and Michael Bun, a survivor of the Cambodian “killing fields” who joined the family at age twelve. Bun now lives in Oakland County and has four children; the other boys, who all live in Ann Arbor, have given them two more grandkids, with a third expected in May.
When he was young, Hatt “wanted to be an Episcopal priest, but at that time we had too many white males, [so the church said], ‘No thanks.’ That was a good call on their part.”
Instead, Hatt tried a sales job in Houston. “Not very happily,” he recalls. “I was supposed to be selling exotic metals and steels and bolting materials to the nuclear industry. I found out from that that you have to have a passion for what you’re selling.”
He’s found that passion in teaching. “I can sell you on reading books,” he says. “I can sell you on public education.”