The importance of hiring a new Sauk Prairie High School principal was set by Jeff Wright, as he opened up the proceedings of a forum set at the River Arts Center.
“This will not be just a leadership position for the building, but for the district and the community,” said the director of curriculum instruction.
And so began on April 15 a question-and-answer session with the three candidates who are finalists to replace retiring principal Chris Grinde. The forum, which was open to the public and not only featured submitted queries from the audience but invited members to submit evaluation forms afterward, was the final step in a hiring process that began in February when Grinde announced his plan to retire.
A field of more than 50 applicants has been thinned to three: Vince Breunig, principal of Lodi High School; Chad Harnisch, principal of Rice Lake High School; and Shane Been, assistant principal at Sauk Prairie High School.
Superintendent Cliff Thompson said he will recommend a new hire to the School Board on April 22.
Those on hand appreciated being part of the process.
“I thought it was great that the community had a chance to listen to their philosophies and have input,” said Prairie du Sac resident Brad Breunig, a parent within the district. “The community truly is the beneficiary of a strong high school.”
Each candidate answered the same questions over the course of 25 minutes. Here is a synopsis of some of their comments, in speaking order:
“I make connections with students on a daily basis,” said the Lodi principal who is a local resident with kids in the Sauk Prairie district. “I don’t think kids should just barely get by, but be successful at the next step of their lives.”
He called the high school “the most complex building and the face of the district.”
He also took pride in his farming roots. When he reflected back to his days as a principal in the Wisconsin Heights School District, he said: “I remember walking out of the school and thinking how hard this is, and then hearing in the background all the farm equipment going on around me. That work is much harder. It reminded me that success in life takes hard work.”
As a former school psychologist, he believes he knows how to establish has a good rapport with students despite his leadership position, and even created a Facebook page for the school. That said, he encourages students to pop in.
“I have a candy dish in my office,” Breunig said. “I connect best with the students who are struggling. I am up front and honest with them.”
He also said he is respected by his staff members in Lodi.
“They wish me well, but they also threatened that they’d sit in the back row and heckle me,” he said. “They wished me good luck, but not too much good luck.”
The Rice Lake principal said he wasn’t a great student and learned from the school of hard knocks. But that helps him relate well to kids, he said.
“Without a shared context, trying to communicate with young people can be a foreign language,” Harnisch said. “They relate to me.”
A self-described burly man, he said he can be an intimidating figure but prides himself on his verbal and personal skills.
“I’m very present, very open,” he said. “I engage in a level of conversation the receiver is comfortable with – a two-way method of communication. I’m always in the halls, in the gym, in the cafeteria, but I’m always someone you can talk to and not just a presence.”
Harnisch prides himself on knowing his school.
“When you meet your principal and that principal has no idea who your kid is, that’s not a good feeling for a principal,” he said. “I know my kids.”
He also practices an open-office philosophy.
“I met with three students this morning before I left (for the forum) at 10 a.m. That’s what I average every hour,” he said.
He said meeting the needs of gifted students would be a priority.
“We have to stop with one size fits all,” he said. “That worked for our parents, but the Generation Xers are looking for more, and they’ll go outside the district. Internally, we have to find the right resources for each kid. We need to focus on individual learning, not group learning.”
Harnisch said he’d use a “helicopter view” to handle the whirlwind of school budgets, curriculum and scheduling, still making sure each kid fits into the puzzle. He said it’s all worth it.
“I love my job,” he said. “High school kids’ energy and naiveté about the world is exciting on a continuous basis.”
The humbling duties of cleaning out pig pens, and being held accountable by his father if not done to perfection for a job most would consider unimportant, helped shape Sauk Prairie High School’s current assistant principal.
“Each and every job has expectations,” Been said. “You can fight them or rise to them.”
He prides himself on creating a safe environment for his student body.
“We’re entrusted with 800-plus kids every day while trying to strike a balance for an open culture and the feeling of being free,” Been said.
His role often includes that of disciplinarian, and he recently had to make a tough decision on not allowing a student to remain in the school.
“It tears your heart out, but you have to show that bad behavior has consequences in life and you must consider what’s best for the entire school,” Been said. “It’s not easy to make that phone call, but you have to defend and rationalize that tough decision. It’s terribly difficult.”
He said he is able to be tough yet approachable.
“Do I feel we create an atmosphere in which students feel the school cares about me? I do,” he said. “I feel I’m accessible and kids can visit me anytime, not just when there’s an issue. “
He said gifted students “play a unique role in the classroom,” noting it’s important to identify their strengths. “It’s a crucial mix,” he said of the combination of gifted and typical students. “What might be a requirement for some could be extra credit for another. The deeper knowledge of the gifted students can help coach others, but I’ve had non-gifted students catch on to some topics and offer assistance the other way.”
Been said the variety of what schools offer should make for one goal.
“Athletics, academics and the arts — they should work together seamlessly,” he said. “What we do in all our extra-curricular activities is an extension of the classroom. And there are other avenues of learning we don’t even know yet.”