After a six-week call for candidates, 51 applicants and two rounds of interviews, Litchfield School District selected a new principal for Lake Ripley Elementary School.
“As a superintendent, you don’t get to make a principal hire very often,” said Litchfield Superintendent Beckie Simenson. “
Simenson said the school district selected 10 from the pool of 51 applicants for the first round of interviews and narrowed the choices down to four for second interviews. Before she conducted interviews, Simenson had one-on-one meetings with Lake Ripley staff, teachers and administrators to hear what they wanted from a candidate. She said candidates met a team of 15 Lake Ripley teachers and administrators.
“We wrote absolutely everything down about each candidate, what we liked about them and what we thought they would bring to the school,” Simenson said.
The district selected Chris Olson, a Litchfield Middle School English teacher and varsity boys hockey coach, to take over after 26-year Lake Ripley Elementary principal Gregg Zender retires. Simenson said Olson stood out because of his focus on building relationships in the community, classroom and with teachers.
“The community knows and trusts him,” she said. “He just has that way about him. I really liked that Chris wasn’t afraid to ask questions.”
A new leader
Olson said when he found out that he was being offered the position, he took a few days to think about the job before accepting.
“I wanted to be the first to tell the hockey team so that they wouldn’t hear it from anyone else,” Olson said. “I’m hopeful that I will still be involved in some capacity. I’ve been the head coach for 16 years — I’ve been coaching as long as some of those guys have been alive.”
Olson, who graduated from Greenway High School in Coleraine, Minnesota, went to Bemidji State University. He graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree with emphasis in arts in literature and took a job at Litchfield Middle School. He spent the past 16 years in various teaching roles at LMS, coached hockey and softball, as well.
Olson, who said he likes to keep busy, also pursued his master’s degree in education and graduated from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in 2011. He said his drive to continue his education stemmed from support from his peers.
“I took a number of classes and found there was a drive to do it which generated some momentum [to get my administrative license],” Olson said.
He received his administrative license from Concordia University in June after 320 hours of internships and additional coursework. He completed his degree while continuing his duties as coach and as an English teacher at the middle school.
However, he said the experience getting his degree, teaching and coaching gave him the skill of prioritizing time and computer efficiency.
“I think in that time I wrote 83 papers in 15 months of classes, not including a lot of writing and research,” Olson joked about staying busy.
Olson said he’s excited to take on the new position and continue the legacy of Zender’s stay at Lake Ripley.
“When you have a steady force and concrete leadership, you can see why Lake Ripley had such success under Gregg,” Olson said.
“I’m looking forward to something new and exciting,” Olson said. “I’ve worked with some awesome teachers in the middle school and there are so many talented teachers at Lake Ripley.”
As Olson comes into Lake Ripley, Zender will work with him on Wednesdays to guide him in his new role. While he is going to miss the school and the kids, Zender said he is looking forward to retirement. Zender said Olson knows the district.
“His kids have been through the elementary school, he understands the culture, and he brings a certain amount of excitement into a new job,” Zender said. “I think he brings new ideas — what I have tried to bring in my time here — and he will bring his own ideas.”
Zender said one aspect of the job is knowing the policy, procedures and processes at Lake Ripley.
“I think in my perspective, it’s all in the balance of things,” Zender said. “Over the next couple of months, I’ll be showing him a lot about the school. We have 26 classrooms kindergarten through fourth grade and he’ll have to learn scheduling. He’ll be able to put his own twist on it.”
Zender said Olson’s experience will help improve Lake Ripley.
“What’s nice about it is he’s been in the middle school,” Zender said. “He’s seen the positives and possibly the negatives of the kids who are coming from the elementary. He can come down here and help improve those aspects.”
However, the most important part of being a principal, Zender said, is doing the best for the kids.
“It’s very simple — taking care of the kids and that’s all that matters,” he said. “Take away all of that other stuff, tests, benchmarks, grades. We just have to understand that you need to take care of the kids — that’s all that matters.”
Although his teaching roles have changed over the past 16 years, Olson has occupied the same room during his tenure at the middle school — M142. Zender spent 26 years in his office off-and-on at Lake Ripley marked “Principal: 132.” When June 2019 rolls around, Olson will have a new room number.
“I spent a fair amount of time in that classroom – 16 years,” Olson said. “It’s a huge change – an exciting change.”