The Portage Community School District has narrowed its options for the next high school principal from 20 to two.
The finalists are Portage High School’s assistant principal, Jo-Ellen Fairbanks, and the current principal of Union Grove High School, Thomas Hermann. Fairbanks and Hermann will meet the public at 4:45 p.m. and 5:15 p.m., respectively, on Monday in the high school math pod and then interview for the position with the Portage School Board.
Portage High School Principal Robin Kvalo is retiring at the end of June after serving 25 years in the district, the last eight as high school principal.
The school district posted the job in December and formed a search committee of 14 people made up of teachers, a student, a board member and administrators, including Superintendent Margaret Rudolph.
“I wanted to develop a very collaborative process and receive a lot of input,” Rudolph said, noting the district had also surveyed high school students online to see what kind of attributes they sought in their principal.
“We’re looking for good communication skills — someone who can relate to all of the students,” Rudolph said. “We also want high energy and high visibility.”
The school district hired Fairbanks as assistant high school principal and principal of Portage Academy of Achievement in July, replacing Matt Paulsen in both positions when he became director of teaching and learning for grades 6-12 in Portage.
Fairbanks previously worked as an Advanced Placement biology teacher in the Adams-Friendship Area School District. Before that, she worked for 5½ years as an associate dean at Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin dealing with at-risk students who were trying to earn their general equivalency diplomas.
Fairbanks has 25 years of experience in education, 14 of them teaching at the high school level.
“This past year has been great,” Fairbanks said of her time in Portage. “The staff is really easy to work with and this is very much a team environment where we focus on the students. It’s very enjoyable.”
Teaching students critical thinking skills and helping them to become resilient people have topped the list of things that motivate Fairbanks in education, she said.
“Kids are our future. I want them to make good choices — to follow their interests into a family-sustaining career,” Fairbanks said. “We all want that for our kids.”
Hermann has been the principal of Union Grove High School for the past 10 years and has worked in education for a total of 27 years. He started out as an English teacher in Arizona and then Union Grove, and for 10 years, he served as the high school’s assistant principal before becoming its principal.
Portage, Hermann said, would be a good fit for him for two big reasons: demographics and family ties. Both Union Grove and Portage possess similar enrollments, year to year: Union Grove High typically has about 1,000 students, while Portage typically numbers about 800. Both cities are relatively close to major cities, too: Union Grove is about 30 miles south of Milwaukee and Portage is about 40 miles north of Madison.
“My wife and I love the middle of the state,” Hermann said, noting that their oldest son recently took a job in Madison and their youngest son is set to move out East to attend college.
“We’ll be empty-nesters on June 1,” he said. “I think our transition to Portage would be relatively smooth.”
Helping students succeed in whatever path they choose motivates Hermann as a leader in education, he said. “Educators get very excited when we see kids gain more confidence and feel a sense of purpose, knowing that we’ve had a hand in their success. It’s exciting. That’s why we do this stuff.”
“I’m a very visible person,” Hermann said. “I’m somebody who’s approachable and energetic and I’m really looking forward to meeting as many people as I can on Monday.”
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.
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