Two Homer area schools welcome new leadership at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year as Eric Waltenbaugh and Todd Hindman take the helms of Fireweed Academy and West Homer Elementary. The two new principals are long-time Alaska educators, both of whom have dreamt of living in Homer for some time.
Waltenbaugh’s wife, Jennifer, grew up in Homer, so West Homer Elementary’s new principal already has a strong connection to the town. They have spent summers in Homer for the last decade as well, and Waltenbaugh is looking forward to seeing how the town runs in the winter as well. The Waltenbaughs moved to Homer from Kodiak with their three young boys, two of which are enrolled in the local school system – seven-year-old Kai, five-year-old Rio and two-year-old Dylan.
Waltenbaugh grew up in Amity, Ore., on a cherry orchard and ended up in Alaska for his very first teaching job.
Waltenbaugh came to Alaska because he had always wanted to come north and loves being in the outdoors, he said.
“The adventure drew me here,” Waltenbaugh said. “When I got (my first) job in the Aleutians, I said, I can do anything for nine months.”
In his first teaching position, Waltenbaugh started a program to help struggling students succeed in Unalaska. It was a daunting task to build it, he said, but it was fulfilling.
“I spent three years there and learned the importance of parent involvement and communication,” Waltenbaugh said.
He then worked as a specialist creating culturally relevant curriculum for native students in Kodiak, during which he learned a lot about Aleutic culture. The position had a hard focus on communication, as he worked to motivate teachers and helped those already creating relevant curriculum connect and share with each other.
“I learned what it meant to build a program and collaborate across schools, changing isolation of programs,” Waltenbaugh said. “It helped connect teachers in significant and meaningful ways.”
He then worked with the first Alaska statewide mentor project to support teachers in their first two years. He enjoyed seeing new teachers’ passion and energy for teaching and pushed them to reach their goals. Through this work, he became comfortable observing in classrooms and learned how to provide teachers with what they need to excel, he said. Waltenbaugh afterward returned to Kodiak schools and taught language arts and world and Alaska history at the middle and high school levels.
As principal, Waltenbaugh aims to continue West Homer Elementary’s tradition of excellence by preparing its students for a changing world, he said.
“I feel like it’s a unique school,” Waltenbaugh said. “I want to contribute in a significant and meaningful way. It’s a way to give to the community, to find a way to provide rigorous education for students. The world is rapidly changing, so preparing the students for the 21st century – we don’t know what jobs they’ll have. But we can teach them to be innovative and creative thinkers. The world needs that.
He envisions doing so by collaborating and strengthening ties with the teachers and parents. He also hopes to share expertise across schools within Homer and the rest of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
“I believe in collective intelligence. We’ll all come up with our own ideas, but together we can come up with thinks none of us would think of alone,” Waltenbaugh said. “I met with 43 other principals in the district this past week and was impressed with the level of passion and support.”
When Todd Hindman visited Alaska in the early 90s, he took a picture in front of Homer High School and told his friends that he wanted to work there some day. He now takes the position of principal at Homer charter school Fireweed Academy, one that is suited for his career
At the time Hindman, who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, came to Alaska for his first visit in 1992, he was in his first teaching position at T.A. Edison Environmental Science magnet school in Dallas, Texas. It was a school built to desegregate the schools and give students the opportunity to be in a science-based school. However, Hindman hungered for Alaska.
He received his teaching certificate to teach in Alaska schools in 1994 and it took him three years to get a job as a result of the difference between high interest in a few teaching jobs. His first position was in Sand Point in the Eastern Aleutians, and then went on to work in a science, math and technology based charter school in Nome.
The school in Nome was not as established as Fireweed Academy is now. Only in its second year, the school had a rocky start.
“It had a turbulent first year,” Hindman said. “The parents wanted to give me freedom to do what I needed to. I taught all subjects for 22 students with an aide and no support staff. I don’t know how I did that.”
Over time, Hindman was able to help the school expand with the addition of teachers and students. The school reached a population of about 60 in the time he spent there. Though his fellow staff members became like family for Hindman, who acted as both teacher and principal at the school, there was no support staff as a way of keeping all the school’s money going straight to education. The result was a fun, but stressful position.
In applying for the principal’s job at Fireweed Academy, Hindman was looking for a new challenge. He looks forward to the smallness of the school’s program. This will also be his first year in his teaching career where he will not be teaching everyday, though he plans to work with both teachers and students on a regular basis. The charter school’s project-based program, similar to the ones he previously worked in, also appeal to him.
“My philosophy is no program is a perfect fit for every child, so having that choice is important,” Hindman said. “I’m a firm believer in local control of education. … What a great opportunity it is to get parents involved and communicating regularly with parents so they can have a say in their child’s education. If you can develop a trusting relationship, even if things get rocky, when a parent comes to talk to you one-on-one you can figure out how to accommodate you and the parent.”
He has yet to sit down with the staff and parents of Fireweed Academy to see what their wants and needs are, but he does not anticipate making any changes to the school at this point unless they are desired. He hopes to develop the same type of familial relationship with the staff at Fireweed as he had at his previous school and looks forward to connecting with the community and partnering with organizations that work with kids outside of school as well.
“I want students to see that I care about making the community as good as it can be,” Hindman said.
Anna Frost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New staff for KPBSD Homer area schools:
William Hindman, Fireweed Academy, Principal
Michelle Byrd, Homer Area, Speech Language Pathologist
Jill Zank, Homer Area, Speech Language Pathologist
Lindsay Martin, Homer Flex School, Science/Math Teacher
Walter Love, Homer High School, Vocational Education Teacher
Celena Lemieux, Homer High School, Custodian I
Gia Baker, Homer High School, Guidance/Career Asst
Andrea Messenger, Homer Middle School, Special Education Resource Teacher
Tyler Krekling, Homer Middle School, Physical Education Teacher
Ingrid Harrald, Homer-Flex School, School Mental Health Counselor
Kevin Wilmeth, IS/Homer Area, MicroTech II
Jan Spurkland, Kachemak-Selo School, Science/Math Teacher
Anne Love, McNeil Canyon Elementary School, Primary Grade Teacher/Interventionist
Stephanie Knaebel, Paul Banks Elementary, Special Education Intensive Needs Teacher
Melissa Gersdorf, Paul Banks Elementary, Special Education Resource Teacher
Jennifer Waltenbaugh, Paul Banks Elementary, Pre-Kindergarten Teacher
Michelle Mueller, Paul Banks Elementary, Primary Grade Teacher
Gregory Carroll, Razdolna School, Special Education Resource Teacher
Christopher Cool, Susan B. English School, Special Education Resource Teacher
Pamala Potter, Tebughna, Principal/Teacher
Jared Copeland, Voznesenka and Nikolaevsk Schools, Migrant/Title I Teacher
Eric Waltenbaugh, West Homer Elementary, Principal
Bobby Wick, West Homer Elementary, Intermediate Grade Teacher