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Three candidates are vying for the principal seat at Willard Alternative High School.

It's a position that at the end of the school year will be left open by Jane Bennett's retirement. Executive regional director Karen Allen said about 30 applied, and by Tuesday's community meet-and-greet the candidate pool had been narrowed to three:

  • Shawn Clark, principal of Browning High School
  • Matt Clausen, assistant principal of Big Sky High School
  • Kevin Ritchlin, Academic Programme coordinator at Suzhou Singapore International School in Suzhou, China

Superintendent Mark Thane said the district hopes to have a decision made by the end of the week.

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The most rewarding experience of Clark's 25-year education career so far has been as an ESL teacher in Washington, he said.

He's a Montana native who also taught in Cut Bank before teaching in Washington. He then moved into administration, as assistant principal at Browning High, principal at Shelby middle and high schools, and three years ago became the principal at Browning High.

Clark wants to diffuse Willard's reputation among some as less-than. Willard's image problems are no different from those the alternative schools in Browning face, he said.

"There's a perception that alternative school students get less of an education," he said. "We need to do a really good job of communicating that alternative doesn't mean less. It means different."

That can change through "instructional rounds," he said: Having teachers from the other mainstream high schools come to Willard to see firsthand what happens in the classroom.

"Our goal should be to help students meet their aspirations," he said.

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Clausen is no stranger to Willard. He taught there for six years.

Substitute teaching in an alternative school in Minnesota two decades ago, Clausen said what stuck with him was seeing the importance of relationships.

"It planted that seed for me about what could be different about education that I never even realized had been missing from all my experiences up to that point," he said.

Clausen worked in the independent study program for two years in Missoula County Public Schools – the precursor to Willard. He then taught at the school for six years, before getting his master's degree and moving into administration.

He was assistant principal at Meadow Hill Middle School, then became assistant principal at Big Sky High two years ago.

"When I went to be assistant principal at Big Sky, I did that knowing that one day I wanted to be principal at Willard," he said.

He was frank about Willard's perception.

"Let's call some of it out. (The perception is) Willard's the druggie school," he said. "I've heard a lot of those."

In his work with students and families at Big Sky, Clausen said he still has to dispel that myth. The best ways to do that, he said, are to get Willard students into the community and to bring in counselors from the other high schools, who can then take back what they learned.

"Why I want to come back to Willard as an administrator is that I think a lot of what Willard offers, its core values as a program are akin to my core values. It all starts with relationships," he said.

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Ritchlin may be in China, but he worked for 10 years in MCPS.

He wasn't able to be in Missoula for the interview process, but called in to the community meeting via video. For two years, he's worked at Suzhou Singapore International School in Suzhou, China.

Before that, he taught at Big Sky High for six years in its Native American studies program, "the most rewarding experience as a teacher." He's also taught at Hellgate High.

Answering a parent's question, Ritchlin said the arts are vital to a student's education.

"Arts education is the cornerstone of a lot of what we do in Missoula County Public Schools in that it allows students to express themselves in a different way," he said. "I certainly support the arts in terms of what it provides to students, especially at-risk students and students who are seeking an alternative pathway to their education."

He also emphasized the importance of getting the students out in the community, as well as himself.

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