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Three new principals join RFSD

Will Grandbois
wgrandbois@postindependent.com
Joel Hathaway has the helm at Glenwood Springs Middle School.
Will Grandbois / Post Independent |

As Roaring Fork School District prepares to launch into a new school year, it has three new principals: Joel Hathaway at Glenwood Springs Middle, Matt Koenigsknecht at Crystal River Elementary and Peter Mueller at Basalt High.

Hathaway wasn’t really looking for a new job, but Glenwood Springs Middle School wasn’t a chance he could pass up.

Hathaway and his wife, Ashley, were content in Asheville, North Carolina, where Hathaway served as principal of Clyde A. Erwin Middle School, but couldn’t help but think about moving on their frequent trips to Colorado.

“We always told each other that even if we’re not looking to leave, if an opportunity in a little mountain town opened up, we would pursue it,” he said.

When he ran across the Glenwood job online in April, he decided to apply.

“I was not on an active job hunt. I didn’t send out 100 resumes,” he said. “I sent out one.”

Before North Carolina, Hathaway spent time in Connecticut, Michigan and even served in the Peace Corps in Poland, but had never lived out West. In May, the family of four came out for a visit.

“We were here for four days and just flat fell in love with it,” he said. “I love the idea that my children are going to be raised in a very small town.”

Sam will be attending his first day of school at Glenwood Springs Elementary next week, with his third-grade sister Brighton to show him the ropes.

The whole family will have to learn to adjust to the different pace of the Western Slope.

“The biggest difference I have noticed is Mountain Time isn’t two hours from Eastern Time, it’s about two hours and 15 minutes,” Hathaway chuckled. “Schedules are a little more flexible.”

Already, Hathaway and his family have had a chance to do some hiking and rafting, and are just getting into biking. In the fall, they’ll tackle the slopes for the first time.

“I’m just astounded by the beauty here and all the different opportunities,” Hathaway said.

Hathaway sees opportunities where others see challenges. Glenwood Springs Middle is doubly divided — by a cultural and language barrier, and by bringing in students from two different elementaries.

“I really appreciate the cultural diversity of the town and of the school,” he said. “I am very excited about the fact that our population is inclusive of both Anglo and Latino. I think we can all learn something by being exposed to other cultures.”

He plans to use professional development and community input to ensure a tone of unity and involvement.

As for mixing students from Glenwood Springs and Sopris elementaries, it’s nothing he hasn’t tackled before. His previous school had five feeders.

“I feel that middle school is a crucial time,” he said. “Kids are going through a lot of changes, and parents sometimes feel like there’s suddenly a stranger in the room. It’s our job and our goal to prepare students for success in high school and beyond.”

To do that, he said, you emphasize three things: attendance, perseverance and character.

You also need passionate teachers.

“All good teachers love students and that’s why they do what they do, but this staff is just dynamic and focused on helping kids find success,” Hathaway said.

CRYSTAL RIVER ELEMENTARY

Matt Koenigsknecht remembers the moment he decided to move to Colorado.

A Michigan native from a family of educators, he took a trip to Aspen with a friend his senior year of high school. It was a powder day at Highlands like nothing he’d ever seen.

“I remember at the bottom of that run looking back at my tracks through the powder and thinking — that’s it. I’ve got to be here,” he said.

After going to college in St. Louis, where he played football as a wide receiver, he moved to Denver and went to work for Teach for America. Although he initially thought he wanted to teach high school, he realized elementary was the place for him.

“It’s such a formative age of curiosity and excitement,” he said.

As a man, Koenigsknecht was something of a minority among elementary school teachers.

“There’s more women in elementary education, and kids got really excited to have the boy teacher, but good teaching is good teaching regardless of gender,” he said.

After spending six years in the Denver Public School system, Koenigsknecht was accepted into the prestigious Ritchie Program for School Leaders.

Meanwhile, he got in the habit of coming out to the Western Slope to camp and fly fish. The last two seasons he worked for Summer Advantage in Glenwood and Basalt.

“It’s my favorite place in Colorado,” he said. “I had thought of it as a place to move down the line, and I heard about this opportunity. Ultimately, this is a dream position for me.”

There are some challenges. He and his fiancée, Jocelyn, are renting in Glenwood Springs while they study the housing market in Carbondale.

The school itself has had a rough time of late. With less-than-stellar test scores, parents and faculty have been divided on a direction for the school’s future. Koenigsknecht thinks that’s a sign of real investment and passion.

“Passion’s great, but it also can breed conflict,” he said. “Part of my job and part of the challenge will be to focus it into a clear mission, vision and identity.”

That’s one of three priorities Koenigsknecht intends to focus on, along with providing high quality, data-guided instruction with support from professional development; and building strong student and staff cultures.

It comes down to empowerment of both teachers and staff.

“I want our teachers to really feel great about their leadership, and we want our students to really engage in authentic learning experiences.”

Although the smaller district will be an adjustment, a lot of Koenigsknecht’s previous experience will apply. He’s dealt in schools with very high rates of free and reduced-price lunch as well as high rates of English language learners.

“One of the huge benefits of our school is that we’re a more true reflection of our valley and our country and our world,” he said. “Students who come here reap the benefit of diverse perspective.”

BASALT HIGH

Peter Mueller is no stranger to the Roaring Fork Valley.

Though he grew up in Seattle, his parents and extended family hailed from Colorado. After college, he spent some time in Marble working for Outward Bound, and later taught English and geography at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.

That’s where he met his wife and continued to hone a passion for the outdoors — particularly biking, skiing, and climbing — that he plans to put to work in Basalt.

After almost a decade at CRMS, Mueller pursued a master’s in school leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He served at the helm of schools in Evergreen and Telluride before deciding to look for something in the valley.

“The Roaring Fork Valley is unique in terms of its diversity and support of education,” he said.

Basalt High, in particular, benefits from “a connection the community, small size and strong extracurriculars to engage all parts of student growth.”

It also, Mueller said, escapes the sense of entitlement that plagues some resort communities.

“Students are really honest, genuine, hardworking and sincere,” he said.

Although he’s worked with all grade levels, high school particularly appealed.

“My biggest changes and growth took place of high school,” he said. “Likewise, I’m drawn to that age when so much is possible in helping students discover their potential.”

That includes not just academic growth, but opportunities to flourish artistic, athletic and socially. In addition to inspiring him to enhance the school’s outdoor education program, Mueller’s experience with Outward Bound instilled the program’s core principles: to serve, to strive and not yield, as well as compassion above all else.

“Those tenets speak to me,” he said. “They speak to the kind of school that I want us all working towards.”

That applies across demographics and despite achievement gaps.

“Our biggest challenge is to see our diversity as our biggest strength, not as our biggest weakness,” he said. “I think the school has a very friendly tone and environment, but it would be helpful for us as a school to become more intentional around reaching higher standards.”


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