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Principal Academy is rare training opportunity for Minnesota school leaders

(L-R) Steve Voshell, Peter Mau, Beth Vetter, Nathaniel Messick and Aaron Nelson work through an exercise during this week's Principal's Academy in Thief River Falls. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Northwest Minnesota principals gather at Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls this week for the annual Principal's Academy. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

THIEF RIVER FALLS—Northwest Minnesota principals headed back to school last week.

About 30 principals from the region have been regularly meeting in Thief River Falls since this summer for The Minnesota Principals' Academy, a series of training sessions aimed at strengthening their leadership skills and translating their new knowledge into students who are better prepared for the future. The program is offered through the University of Minnesota.

"In this digital world, which has lots of nonroutine jobs, they have to be able to adapt," said Shane Zutz, principal of Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls.

Principals rarely get an opportunity to attend professional development, and Katie Pekel, a program coordinator who works for the University of Minnesota, described the domino effect of the program.

Staff and teachers benefit by adopting the new research principals learn according to the needs of their schools, and students benefit by being exposed to the most current and relevant instructional strategies, she said.

Shane Zutz, principal of Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, said the academy may be most significant for administrators at smaller schools.

"In northwest Minnesota, we don't have the same access to people or resources as districts in the metro or other regional hubs," he said. "But now we have the research right here. I really feel like this can help us do a better job with our students."

Connecting and learning

Principals meet in Thief River Falls over two years for the academy.

Administrators and legislators lobbied hard to bring the program to the northwest part of the state, said Zutz.

In small groups last week, principals traded experiences and ideas about improving communication with parents, student intervention, budget limitations and their own challenges as leaders. Education jargon filled the air.

For some, it was a great way to connect with others in the region.

"Being able to collaborate and gain different perspectives from colleagues has proven to be valuable in many ways," said Tony Greene, assistant principal at Franklin Middle School in Thief River Falls.

The way this work translates into schools may not be obvious to an outsider, but the impact is clear to educators: Pekel said principals learn methods to turn teachers into better instructors.

Principals who attend learn new teacher evaluation requirements in the state, best practices for math and science subject areas, which help them more effectively gauge the success of their own programs, and how to create better visions for their schools. By the end of the academy, the principals will have created action plans to put in place at their schools.

Peggy Dunn, assistant principal at New Heights in East Grand Forks, said it gives principals an opportunity to share, collaborate and learn from each other.

"It's about everybody—the perspectives of all," she said. "Not just the students, it's the teachers, it's the staff, it's the administrators, it's the community. We want to balance that and make sure we're reaching everybody."

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

(701) 787-6736
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