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Margaret Rudolph works in her office Thursday at Gerstenkorn Administration Building in Portage. Rudolph, the Portage Community School District's director of business operations, will assume the role of superintendent on July 1.

NOAH VERNAU/Daily Register

People who worked for the soon-to-be superintendent of Portage Community School District still remember the “human hotdog” and “intercom bingo.”

Margaret Rudolph still believes in the science of smiling.

“Anything you can do to get the students to read,” Rudolph said of allowing John Muir Elementary students to dress her in ketchup, mustard and relish when she was the principal there and Woodridge Primary School.

Rudolph, who becomes superintendent July 1, also has experience playing a “human taco” and “human ice cream sundae” in Portage.

“Not everybody’s willing to do that,” said Sandy Ryczek, in her 24th year as administrative assistant at John Muir Elementary. Rudolph was the principal of John Muir from 1999 to 2008, a period that Ryczek and Michelle Hanson remembered for the smiles.

“I know the kids loved the bingo,” said Hanson, a fourth-grade teacher at John Muir, who worked for Rudolph for about three years. Rudolph would read numbers over the intercom during homeroom, as students raced to make bingo.

“She had a treasure chest full of prizes,” Hanson added.

Bingo was an opportunity for older students to help the younger students recognize numbers and letters, Rudolph explained. There were clear advantages to earning their smiles. She established her emphasis on smiling in Westfield, where she was the principal of Neshkoro Elementary School from 1995 to 1999.

Smiling became her theme, she said, and then she brought it to Portage.

“The kids don’t know the science behind it, but when they would walk down the halls, they’d be smiling at me,” Rudolph remembered. “I’d give them smiley stickers, and I did that at John Muir, too.”

She received so many smiley items over the course of her principal tenures that Rudolph used to display them in the cabinets at John Muir. She kept every one, proudly displayed in a room at her house.

“Smiling really helps us,” Rudolph said. “When we smile, the body releases the dopamine into our system, and that dopamine makes us feel happy. When we’re happy, we’re more successful. We’re better problem-solvers, we’re more collaborative, we’re more productive — we get more done.

“So I say, put on a smile.”

Hard work

Rudolph, whose selection as superintendent was announced last week, became the Portage district’s director of business operations in 2008. Shortly after that, she earned her doctorate of philosophy with an emphasis in educational administration from Marian University.

Thinking of her time as business director, School Board President Steve Pate said he has long been impressed with Rudolph’s attention to detail. Pate, a school board member for more than 30 years, was unable to recall ever being surprised by final budget numbers as presented by Rudolph, noting that she works especially hard to keep board members up to speed on the resources available to them.

“There are some school districts that get into trouble financially, but not this one,” Pate said. “We have no debt whatsoever.”

“I’ve always thought that she spends every dollar like it’s her own,” Pate said. “She really watches the bottom line, and she knows her numbers.”

Like Rudolph, Portage High School Principal Robin Kvalo joined the district in 1999. Kvalo was the principal of Rusch Elementary, as well as the four rural elementary schools (Caledonia, Endeavor, Lewiston and Fort Winnebago), often working closely with Rudolph when they were principals.

“I don’t know if there’s anybody who works harder than she does,” Kvalo said of Rudolph. “If you drive by GAB (Gerstenkorn Administration Building) on the weekends, chances are you’ll see her car there. She’s had several big roles in our district, and she understands the finances and constraints” it faces.

Rudolph also is known in the community for her work in Portage Kiwanis, where she has been a member since 1999 and serves as its current president.

“As a Rotarian, I’m often in a tent next to her during events,” Kvalo said with a laugh. “She’s just out there. She’s visible, and I think the community appreciates knowing the superintendent, in a community sense.”

“She has a big heart — a heart for kids — and she likes to have fun.”

Transition period

Rudolph said her first big step as superintendent will be listening to staff, parents and people from the community.

“I need to work with everyone to move forward for the students,” she said.

Communication is key in this role, and a clear strength for Rudolph, according to Kvalo. “I know from working with her directly that she and I communicated often and we communicated well together,” she said.

“She’s a very good listener. She’s not quick to respond, and I think we’re at a point in our district where we want to be heard. She trusts people to do their job. I don’t see her as a micromanager — I expect her goal is to hire the best people, and to let them do their job.”

Rudolph said there still is a lot of preparation to be done for her transition. Charles Poches, who submitted his resignation in January, will complete 11 years as superintendent on June 30. He’s been supportive of her, she said, always willing to “help with whatever is needed to move the district forward.”

“My capacity as director of business operations is very different from being superintendent,” Rudolph said. “I have a passion for the district’s success. I believe we have a lot of great attributes, a wonderful staff, and I always want to make sure I’m focused on the right things to set our students up for success.”

“The teachers and staff, the community, the parents — they’ll all have a voice for moving forward.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter