As the superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools, Pat Watson provides an innovative and empathetic environment where students thrive
By Patrick Dunn
Featured photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
When Bloomfield Hills Schools Board of Education member Lisa Efros toured West Bloomfield High School (WBHS) last year, she says she’d “never seen anything like” the learning environment then- principal Pat Watson had created.
Students roamed the halls freely, their conversations with teachers and each other flowing fluidly between subjects. Watson seemed to know every student by name, chatting with them as he rolled a small standing desk from classroom to classroom. At one point, recalls Efros, a student asked Watson for a quiet place to sit and Watson told the student to go relax in his office.
“It was such a mutual respect and trust that I just kept thinking, ‘I want this for our students,’” she says. “‘I want them to be treated this way and to feel that way back.’”
Watson fulfilled Efros’ wish when he became superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools last December. The father of three has based his innovative, empathetic approach to education on the many strong relationships he had with his own teachers as a child. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Watson describes himself as an “underdog” who lived in Section 8 housing and was raised by a single mom. He rattles off a list of teachers whom he describes as “extensions of my family,” some of whom he remains in touch with today.
“Before mental health was really a big thing people talked about in schools, they would always ask me, ‘How are things going? What are you thinking about for the future?’ and just really try to be mentors for me when it was far above and beyond the expectation of what a teacher would be doing during that time,” he says.
Watson says he had “no second thought” about what career to pursue, wanting only to give others what his teachers had given him. WBHS hired him in 1994 as a history teacher, but he says he didn’t want to teach the “same old, same old” curriculum. He emphasized an experiential approach in his teaching, creating a simulation of Ellis Island in the school auditorium, staging a mock World War I battle on the baseball field and leading the class through a mock war crimes trial of Harry S. Truman for his use of atomic warfare.
Mikhael Reamer took Watson’s class in 1998 as a sophomore at WBHS. She still has a family tree she created in his class, which emphasized not just the names of her ancestors but their life stories as well. “He was very charismatic and easy to build relationships with,” says Reamer. “He was just the kind of teacher who was magnetic. You looked forward to going to his class.”
After spending nearly 16 years as a teacher at WBHS, Watson brought his innovative approach to the school overall as he stepped up to the role of assistant principal in 2010 and then principal in 2014. He prioritized making the school as competitive as possible with local private schools, creating an environment that he says “looks and feels like a college campus.” That meant giving students more freedom, encouraging cross-disciplinary conversations and positioning teachers as guides to learning rather than knowledge dispensers. Watson says the school has “a family atmosphere where you can have open and honest conversations.”
“The students feel like it’s their school, that they have as much or close to as much say as the adults do in the building,” he says. “I think that’s very, very powerful for them, because then they take ownership.”
Watson made a host of other innovative changes while at WBHS, including implementing a mental health curriculum, establishing a STEAM program and forging new partnerships with local universities. He says he was “completely content” at WBHS, but the superintendent role at Bloomfield Hills Schools was “too good an opportunity” to turn down. His new role was upended by COVID-19 just three months after he started, but the district has fared remarkably well under the circumstances.
Voters approved a $200 million bond proposal for the district by a 61% margin in August — a pleasant surprise to Efros, who notes the “blood, sweat and tears” she’s poured into past bond proposals only to see them fail. “I attribute that to Pat,” she says. “He builds trust.”
Watson has led the district in creating a unique model for returning to school this fall, allowing students and their families to choose on a daily basis whether to attend class in-person or learn online. Reamer, Watson’s former student, is now an eighth-grade science teacher at Bloomfield Hills’ East Hills Middle School. She says that despite the challenge of COVID-19, Watson “is exceeding every expectation that we could imagine as teachers and as a community.”
She recalls Watson stopping by her classroom during her first week back to in-person learning. “He said, ‘Do you have everything you need to be a successful teacher right now? And if not, what can I get for you?’ He’s always trying to make sure that everybody has what they need in order to make the most impact.”
Watson expresses regret that COVID-19 has limited his ability to build relationships in his new district. But he says he still gets out to interact one-on-one with teachers and students as much as is safely possible. “I can’t just sit in an office all day and not be around kids,” he says. “Even though I’m employed by the Board of Education, at the end of the day, my number one responsibility is to the students.”