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The Hellgate High School community got to meet candidates for the principal position this week. 

The field has been narrowed from 25 applicants. On Monday, five candidates went through a day of interviews and discussions with staff and administration. The slate was narrowed to four by Tuesday:

  • North Kitsap High School Principal Judson Miller (Poulsbo, Washington)
  • Lindbergh High School Principal Tres Genger (Renton, Washington)
  • Glasgow High School Principal Shawnda Zahara-Harris (Glasgow, Montana)
  • Rock Canyon High School Assistant Principal Nick Laatsch (Highlands Ranch, Colorado)

Last month, Missoula County Public Schools announced that Hellgate principal Lisa Hendrix would be reassigned to C.S. Porter Middle School next school year. She'll fill a position left open by Porter Principal Julie Robitaille's reassignment to one of the executive regional director positions next year.

During round-robin meet-and-greets Tuesday, students, staff, parents and community members got to meet Miller, Genger and Zahara-Harris. Laatsch had to miss the meet-and-greet to catch a plane.

Executive Regional Director Roberta Stengel said a decision should be made by late this week or early next week.

Superintendent Mark Thane said he's looking for a person with evident leadership qualities and the ability "to build a collaborative relationship with parents, staff and students."

"We need somebody who can take the student voice, take the staff voice and help build a consensus about what's best for Hellgate and work toward achieving those goals," he said. "We want someone who can be Superman or Superwoman, I guess."

Thane said he understands the community's trepidation.

"Any time there's a transition, there's a high degree of uncertainty," he said. "What I would suggest to a new person is immerse him or herself and learn about Hellgate, about the programs, the culture, but most importantly reaching out to the students, the staff and building relationships."

***

Miller graduated from Montana State University and taught English for four years. He worked as an assistant principal for four years, and the past five as principal at North Kitsap High School, a school that he said parallels Hellgate in its history, tradition and some of its challenges.

He sees returning to Missoula as "a lifetime move." He wants to settle down and start a family; he has a circle of friends in town; he loves the outdoors; and he's excited about Hellgate's potential. Being around high-schoolers is fun, he said, because "the next step is always better" to them.

A hurdle stood in his way when he took the helm at North Kitsap: a staff divided.

Through collaboration and conversation, rather than a top-down "this is how it's going to be" approach, he said the staff morale and school atmosphere have improved.

"That was a multi-year process," he said.

It's "aptitude versus attitude," he said. The problem is while he can become a pillar of support and establish systems in a school, he can't change attitude.

His work starts with data, Miller said. He looks at graduation rates, attendance counts and more to see where students are and where they've come from. 

"I create systems, ways for kids to buy into school," Miller said, pointing to the more than 40 clubs and activities his students have created in the past few years.

***

Genger's goal for students is simple: They should "graduate to something, not from something." He wants high-schoolers to look to the future, finding what inspires them so they can succeed after graduation.

"I don't want them treading water," he said.

He was raised in Fairfield, Montana, and got his master's degree and teaching credentials at University of Montana. Twenty years ago, he left Hamilton to live in the Pacific Northwest. Now his children are out of the house, and he wants to come back.

"For the past several years, I've kept a pulse on what's happening in Montana," he said.

He sees Hellgate today mirroring Lindbergh High 10 years ago, in terms of "culture and community" in the building.

"I really believe that with staff and community, that the good things that fortunately happened in my building can happen here, and I want to be a part of that," he said. "It's not to say that I'm so extraordinary or a miracle worker, because the work is done by the people in the building."

The shift came from empowering staff, he said. Professional learning communities allow teacher collaboration on Friday mornings. Master teachers that the staff chose lead the way, providing trust that allows staff to stand up in faculty meetings and speak their mind, Genger said.

Hellgate parents had concerns about the friction between International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement. It often appears that IB is pushed as the sole path to success, parents said, when that's not necessarily true for every student – and AP students can be just as successful.

"Numbers can't drive everything," he said. "If a building is vested in a program, most often you have to backfill that program until the program is self-generating."

***

Zahara-Harris shook everyone's hand before introducing herself.

She's taught and been a school administrator in Montana and Colorado, helped open an elementary school in Colorado, and worked for one year in Montana's Office of Public Instruction's Schools of Promise program.

"I understand the learning, the needs, how they develop over time," she said of her pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade experience.

In Glasgow, she's led the high school for the past three years as the industrial arts and family and consumer sciences programs have gotten boosts – in community support and funding and new ways of thinking.

"I know resources are always limited, but that's why partnerships in the community need to happen," she said.

Parents of students in advanced programs, such as IB and AP, are engaged and vocal. Sometimes, one parent worried, that means the students "in the middle" or not as advanced are left behind.

Elements of those "highly public programs" need to be available to all students, Zahara-Harris said. The principal needs to engage with everyone at the table, "take copious notes" and pinpoint exactly what's working, what isn't and make links between students and opportunities.

"One of the problems we run into is ... we talk a lot, we don't put it in black and white," she said. "When we take the time to put it in black and white, you can see what you're hearing, then it helps to put it into perspective of what that reality can be or should be versus what it is."

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