Bozeman High School is a chaotic mess with hallways full of desks and moving boxes and construction workers tearing out walls and pounding in new floors.

Principal Rob Watson, giving a tour last week through the school's hard-hat zones, remains an island of steady calm and quiet optimism in the eye of the storm of construction. That seems to be his style.

"It's been great," Watson, 40, said of his first year as principal of Bozeman High. He said students, teachers and parents have made him feel welcome.

On top of all the things principals normally do, Watson has been in charge of organizing the big move into the school's new home. The former Chief Joseph Middle School, which is just finishing a three-year, $36 million reconstruction, is the same building where Watson attended junior high 26 years ago.

"It's like a 100-year flood," Watson quipped. "Anytime you move that many teachers, it's a big job. We got some consensus, decisions on where people are going to be. I think the transition went pretty smoothly."

One big decision was whether to organize the school by grade level - for example, by creating a "ninth grade academy," apart from older students - or by academic department, so scattered math teachers would be in nearby classrooms. He honored a recommendation from a teachers committee that wanted departments to be together.

Watson gets high marks from teachers and from the just-graduated student president, Hannah Parkes. Yet for many seniors, who spent three years with Principal Godfrey Saunders before he retired, Watson remains a bit of a mystery.

If Saunders was something of a rock star, a charismatic, bigger-than-life figure, Watson is more life-size, with a dash of President Barack Obama's "no drama" style. Yet Watson also cares about the 1,800 students and the school.

"He's quieter. He's more low-key than Dr. Saunders," said Parkes, who worked with Watson more closely than most students. "He's smart, impressively smart. He has a very gentle, kind personality."

The big thing that Watson did that students really liked was to support a new policy allowing students to use their once-restricted cell-phones and iPods between classes, in study halls and even in classes if teachers want to use them as teaching devices. Watson also didn't go on a rampage against behavior at school dances that some parents have criticized as "dirty dancing." Student safety is the No. 1 priority, he said, echoing Saunders.

Senior Kelsey Ludin said "the transition has gone pretty smoothly," yet "we don't know him as well."

"We'd see (Saunders) in the hallways - he knew everybody's names," senior Lania Durnal said.

Watson said planning the move has been such a priority, "I wasn't able to get as connected as I'd like with student groups," but he fully intends to.

"I am caring and compassionate," Watson said simply. "It probably will take me longer to get to know folks."

Longtime psychology teacher Joyce Hannula said Watson has good support from the teaching staff.

"What I appreciate most about Rob is he's very willing to listen to our suggestions or ideas," she said. "I always feel I'm getting a fair, balanced answer."

English teacher Jim L. Thompson agreed, saying Watson had "actually exceeded (teachers') expectations."

"He's able to do it all - he's pretty amazing," Thompson said. "He carefully and quietly works behind the scenes and it all gets done." He added if Watson has a concern with a teacher, he'll walk to their classroom for a talk, rather than sending e-mail.

"He's a low-key guy, not flashy, very mellow and laid back," Thompson said.

And though Watson seems serious, he has "a great sense of humor," Thompson said. Someone in the main office, who knew Watson didn't like mice in his new home, put a fake mouse on his desk, hidden under papers, as a prank.

"It was definitely a shocker," Watson said. He took a photo of the prank and brought the fake mouse home to show his family. He and his wife, Heidi, a nurse, have two daughters, 4 and 7.

On the last school day for teachers, Watson put together a humorous slide show and candy-bar awards. He gave Thompson an award for coming in early at 6:15 a.m., finding the senior prank and helping custodians clean it up before students arrived. Some industrious seniors had climbed over the school roof into a courtyard and plastered "inappropriate" sexy pictures on all the windows.

Outside of school, Watson has joined the Bozeman Library Foundation board. He said he was inspired by its One Book, One Bozeman project, which last year urged all citizens to read "The Soloist" about the mentally ill homeless.

"I'm always looking for ways to inspire students to read more, that's a passion for me," Watson said. "It's a way to give back to the community."

Superintendent Kirk Miller, Watson's boss, said the new principal has "done very well." Miller said Watson has continued a strong emphasis on a high student performance, established good relationships with the school community and "provided outstanding leadership" for the move.

"He's a great part of our team," Miller said.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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