Five school administrators vying to become the new Kelly Walsh principal spoke to community members Thursday night, describing their leadership style and how they would handle bullying amid a growing conversation about school safety.
The five candidates are Mike Britt, the principal at Centennial Junior High; Christopher Dresang, an assistant principal at Natrona County High; Mark Fritz, the principal of Sheridan County’s Tongue River High; Gibson Ostheimer, the principal of Park Elementary; and Amy Rose, an assistant principal at Kelly Walsh.
The forum, held in Kelly Walsh’s auditorium, was moderated by student body president Hannah Henry and associate superintendent Verba Echols. Questions for the candidates were submitted ahead of time, and a total of five prompts — plus an opening and closing statement — were tackled by the prospective principals.
The questions included how the candidates’ would describe their leadership styles and how that approach would work in Kelly Walsh; how they as a KW principal would help struggling students; how they would handle what Henry described as a growing bullying concern; how they would emphasize special learning opportunities available to students; and how they saw their role in dealing with specialized students, like those with special needs.
The forum was held as the Natrona County School District has dealt with allegations of waterboarding at Kelly Walsh, a report that has prompted community members to describe their own struggles with bullying throughout the district. The District Attorney’s Office has said it will not press charges related to the incident and has disputed its characterization as waterboarding. A family member of the victim maintains the original report. The district has declined to comment, as have the victim and his parents.
It’s unclear how swiftly the district will move to announce the replacement for outgoing principal Brad Diller, who has run KW for 23 years and announced his retirement late last year. The district has asked for feedback on the candidates from the community through 5 p.m. Feb. 4 The school board meets Feb. 12.
Each candidate was given three minutes to answer the questions. For the sake of clarity and space, the Star-Tribune will quote the beginning and part of each candidate’s answer to the three of the questions. A recording of the entire forum can be found online.
Describe your leadership style or philosophy and how it relates to Kelly Walsh’s four pillars of academics, acceptance, athletics and activities. What will you do to foster trust within the KW community?
Mark Fritz: “My leadership style is, I’m very visible, outgoing with students. I’m a very good role model for students. I’m in the hallways, I greet every kid when they come in. I also get to know them. At Tongue River, we’re very small. ... It’s really a 1-on-1 situation that I’m in, that I get to value that.”
“We want to teach the culture, and promote the culture, we want a very positive culture in our school, and with that comes the four pillars. That’s how we grow Tongue River right now. We want the best for our kids, we want that positive culture.”
Gibson Ostheimer: “As we know, Kelly Walsh’s four pillars are just pivotal to the culture of Kelly Walsh. And the growth of students within one of those four pillars or more is really why we come to work every day.”
“My leadership style is really more of a servant. When I go to Park school every day, my job is to provide for my staff so they can do their absolute best for their students. Every morning I’m in every classroom, saying how are you doing this morning. If I can meet their needs, they can meet the needs of every kid. The same thing is true at Kelly Walsh. I’m just one of those people who’s out there all the time.”
Mike Britt: “The first rule I came into my leadership roles at Evansville and Centennial with my office manager was this: If the door’s open, they come in, and it doesn’t matter if that’s a student, a staff member, a parent. And I’ve kept that as a strong characteristic of mine throughout my leadership career. ... The problem is, rarely will they see me in my office because I’m out and about, either working in a (professional learning community) with a student, in a classroom observing, working with kids.”
“I think my leadership style is strategic and I build very good teams.”
Chris Dresang: “I’m going to talk to you about three texts that describe my leadership style, and so if you want to read them, then you’ll know a little bit more about me as well. The first one is Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,’ and one of the chapters is about being proactive and I think that aligns really nicely with the pillar of acceptance.”
“The next book that will help you understand me and my style is by Neila Connors called ‘If You Don’t Feed Your Teachers, They Eat The Students.’ It’s very real. If you don’t celebrate teachers’ success and give them time and let them know that they’re important to you and your school, you can see it in your students in a very real way.”
“The last book is Simon Sinek’s ‘Leaders Eat Last,’ and it’s the idea of building a culture around your group. So it’s a tightknit group.”
Amy Rose: “To describe my leadership style, first off, over the years and in the 18 years I’ve been in education, it’s grown and it’s changed and it’s matured as I’ve grown up a little bit. Currently I believe that my leadership style is a servant leadership ... How I know that is I tend to acknowledge and value others through the process of the day, and in my day, if I can be part of someone else’s relationship, whether it’s a student or staff member, in any form, or a parent, then I know that my needs of how I lead are being met.
“I like to lead by example. I feel like I’m a great listener, and I’m definitely a problem-solver and I found that to be a very strong suit when I came to Kelly Walsh as activities director. The pillars are no joke, though. ... They are a piece of Kelly Walsh.”
How do you intend to address the growing concern of bullying in schools? Specifically, as a leader how would you ensure the enforcement of the bullying policy and the implementation of appropriate consequences?
MB: “The enforcement of the bullying policy can be, for most administrators, actually one of the easiest things we do. When we have an incident that occurs, it’s pretty cut and dry. We do an investigation or inquiry, we find out what happened and we provide the appropriate consequences.
“The difficulty as administrators and as a school family is more prevention and identification of those who are being bullied in our schools. It is the ultimate fire we’re trying to put out in our schools. ... Safety is our primary concern, learning is our mission. It always doesn’t matter what school you are, if you don’t feel safe at school, then no learning will occur. ... Students will be biggest part of our solutions.”
CD: “Absolutely the easiest part is board policy, it’s pretty cut and dry. The hardest part is the trail to get to board policy when bullying happens. I can’t tell you how many times I have someone come in my office and go, ‘I’m getting bullied.’ And so there’s two words that kind of make me bristle because every kid in my school is either my son or my daughter. I know it sounds cheesy, but it really is.
“So if my son’s getting bullied, I want to figure out what’s going on. I wish I could solve it in 10 minutes. It’s never that easy. and things like social media play a huge role in that. ... I think of it as a weed, and making sure you get every root of that weed stop and dies, but you know how weeds work: If you don’t get every root, it’s right back, it’s fresh as before.”
AR: “I take this question very seriously at this time. As the school administrator, we have a distinct and very personal responsibility to make sure all of our students are safe. And that doesn’t happen every day, and that is not an easy pill to swallow. School is real, life is real. ... Social media has changed the game around the school house, but bottom line our schools need to be a safe place to everyone.”
“In order to do that, we have to foster healthy environments within our school system. We need to build trust and integrity with all stakeholders, including our students and our parents in our overarching Casper community. We need to have high expectations for good behavior and taking care of each other.”
MF: “Bullying’s just not accepted. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s just not accepted, and we need to deal with it. And it needs to be dealt with at the lowest level possible, that’s what I’m talking about. A lot of times there’s red flags, a lot of times there’s things that students will tell me, especially in my school, that something is going on. And there’s no time to waste there. I will get the student right away, do an investigation, find out the information and find out both sides of the information.
“With bullying, too, sometimes there’s an act, and it’s really not bullying until it happens again. So I’m very clear with the student: You know what, this happened, and this won’t happen again. Or these consequences will be set out. ... We don’t have to make that hard, and it cannot be accepted. ... I’ve set behavior contracts with students before: You will stay away from this person, you will not look at this person, you will not do this, and parents will sign it, students will sign it.”
GO: “Every child that gets dropped off at school deserves to feel safe, and there’s just no excuse when they don’t, as has been stated, board policy is there. We now the consequence for bullying. In my leadership style, I just don’t ignore small stuff. When you’re in the hall and the student calls another student a name, as an adult in the building, you can let it go because kids are kids. Or you can address it. That little stuff, that’s where it becomes big stuff.
“And if we address the little stuff, if we hold each other, students, adults, if we hold each other to high expectations of behavior and we address small stuff, we can eliminate a lot of big stuff. I just don’t believe in ignoring little things. Dealing with students fairly and consistently, the investigative process is what it is, it takes time. But once that’s done, consequences are immediate.”
What do you see as your role in supporting special student populations at Kelly Walsh High School, such as those on an individualized learning plan, gifted, special education, language learners, etc.
“I absolutely see myself supporting these student populations in a lead role. I believe that the head principal needs to be highly involved with all ends of the spectrum of all students. As you guys know, Kelly Walsh has both ends of population of students. We have some of the very most handicapped students in our district here, and we also have some of the smartest kids as well as our other schools, but we have highly gifted students. there’s a special balance that makes the pillar of acceptance stand out.”
“I see me leading that. I have had a very good relationship with our special ed department. We have individualized education program meetings all the time with our staff and our leaders in our SpEd department, and I just believe that what we will continue to do through my leadership is grow academic success on both ends of our students.”
“Special education students are close to me and my family. My wife is a special education teacher. Its’ very important to me. I attend every single IEP in my building, I attend 504s, we work through all of those to level the playing field for those students. Very important for them to have an advocate and help them through their schools because sometimes school is very tough and its very important we support students.
“Some of the things we have done, especially in my building, we’ve worked hard at team teaching in special education, getting the special education teachers in the regular classrooms, we also did a really nice job in getting those students involved extra curriculuar activities, maybe pushing them out of their comfort zone a little bit and getting them involved in as many activities as we possibly can.”
“It is something to see at Kelly Walsh High School, it really is. As Amy said, and I completely agree, the acceptance pillar is hugely recognized as important at Kelly Walsh. These (Functioning Living Skills) students and some of them are handicapped students, they border on celebrity status here. And everything student walking down the hall knows their name, and says hi, and helps them, and goes out of their way to make them feel part of the school community.”
“Providing those AP courses — and in fact encouraging more students to try those courses. One of those things that research says we need to do. we need to challenge students to get a ltitle bit uncomfortable and try something hard.”
“I asked student group, if there’s anything that if I’m the next Kelly Walsh principal that you’d make sure that we sustained, and then is there anything you’d want to see improved, she answered right away: ‘We treat our students with disabilities amazingly, that is an important aspect and pillar to our school, that acceptance pillar. at the student level, if they’re telling you that, I recognize that as an important piece.”
“One specific example, it really came to light this week thanks to a student. Thanks to the incredible help of our social worker, we helped a peer advocacy class for students who were able to help possibly in our ALS or FLS classrooms. Being enrolled in a peer-advocacy class is a huge deal. You have got to work hard.”