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New principal excited for new challenges at School of St. Philip

When she and her husband began looking at moving to the Hutchinson area — a location closer to both of their adult children — earlier this year, Percy Lingen knew she needed to find work.

Though the move from Sleepy Eye was intended as a sort of a step toward retirement, at least for her husband, Steven, Lingen knew she still wanted — needed — to work. Her previous attempts at slowing down had shown that work needed to be part of her life.

And if that work involved education, all the better.

“I’m a person that needs to work,” Lingen said with a broad smile. “I’ve retired before, and my husband said, ‘I’ll give it two months.’ And so I just started looking, and I saw the ad for this job in the diocesean newsletter.”

As if preordained, the ad the former teacher, principal and superintendent spotted was for a principal at the School of St. Philip in Litchfield.

“I told Father Jeff (Horejsi, pastor at Church of St. Philip), when I saw this, I thought, ‘I like a challenge, and I pride myself on being a good problem solver,’” Lingen said. “I said that I may need this school as much as it needs me. I really felt called to this post; I really did. And it worked out.”

Lingen earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. Later, she added master’s degrees in curriculum and instruction, and administration from Minnesota State University Mankato. Her 29-year teaching career includes stints as teacher and administrator in both public and Catholic schools in Utah and Minnesota.

She stepped away from education several years ago for health reasons, before returning to work at BIC Graphic in Sleepy Eye, where she worked in the shipping department, “because I could problem solve … coordinating trucks and getting things through customs.”

But she’s excited to be back in school.

Lingen’s first “official” day at School of St. Philip, according to her contract, will be Aug. 26. But she began throwing herself into the job in July, commuting from Sleepy Eye on an almost-daily basis before moving in to a home in Hutchinson. Though the 65-mile, one-way commute was arduous at times, she said she knew she was playing catch-up, with the start of a new school year less than two months away.

Not only was time short, but the new school year will be unlike any Lingen or any other educator has faced in quite some time, possibly ever. The COVID-19 pandemic forced teachers and administrators to reimagine education and plan for the unexpected, as they did not know what would be permitted under state guidelines.

But the decision has now been made, and School of St. Philip will start the new year with all students in the classroom. It will be different, with cleaning protocols, mask-wearing and social distancing, but students and teachers will be together in the building.

Enrollment will be limited to 12 students per class, kindergarten through fifth grade, with a combined second-third grade class, as well as a second-grade-only class.

The school has dropped its preschool program for this year, a difficult decision that had to be made, Lingen said, because there was not enough room, if students and staff were to observe social distancing.

“We’re going to look a little bit different. I’m pretty content, unless I think too much about how much work there is to do to get this school ready,” Lingen said. “But we’re opening. We’re opening face-to-face.”

A task force of staff and parents has been working on making sure that plan is handled in the safest ways possible, she said.

“We just want to be able to put out to parents what our plan is, you know, what exactly do we need to do to keep these kids safe,” Lingen said. “The biggest thing is, we are going to keep (students) in the classrooms as much as possible.”

Music, a class that traditionally has been taught in a separate room, will be taught in the individual classrooms. Similarly, physical education class will be outside, or if the weather does not permit meeting outside, students will do a health unit in their classroom.

“We’re just going to keep them together as much as we can, so we can keep them healthy,” Lingen said. “We want them here.”

She thinks the school’s approach could be a selling point for some parents trying to decide the best educational path for their children. As she talked, Lingen pointed to a “new students” folder on a shelf above her desk, inside of which were the names of parents who wanted more information about School of St. Philip offerings this year.

After calling parents whose children were previously enrolled at the school to confirm their children would be attending St. Philip agin this year, Lingen and staff are reaching out to new families with the message that, “We’ve got room for you. And that’s exciting. That’s very exciting.”

Though the pandemic creates challenges for in-school education, Lingen said she and the staff are pleased they’ve worked out a plan to do so.

“Part of school is the socialization, and practicing what you learned,” she said. “And so we want to do that, we want to do that safely. So we’re trying to include as much of that as we can, but without jeopardizing, having to close, or to do something different.”

Lingen said she counts herself lucky to be working with the staff she has at the school, as well as the path laid out by previous principals. She knows both of the school’s last two principals, Michelle Kramer, who left to the school earlier this year to take a position with the Diocese of New Ulm, and Diana McCarney. She hopes to continue the tradition of strong education and family atmosphere for which the school has been known.

“I need to make this a better place, which is going to be hard because Michelle and Diana … those are two very big pairs of shoes,“ Lingen said. “But I need to make sure this place is here for the next generation, for those people who went to school here, so it’s there for their kids. Because for many people, they need this. They really do.”


News
MSHSL moves high school football, volleyball seasons to spring

There will be no high school football or volleyball in Minnesota this fall. The decision was made by the Minnesota State High School League Board of Directors during a meeting Aug. 4. Other fall sports such as girls tennis, girls swimming and diving, cross country and soccer will play in the fall, but with several restrictions.

The MSHSL Board of Directors voted to delay the football and volleyball seasons until spring 2021 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. There will be no scrimmages, a shorter season with fewer games, and postseason plans are yet to be determined.

The decision wasn’t Litchfield volleyball coach Darin Swenson’s favorite choice, but he understands the effort to do the best for overall safety.

“Of the four options, I thought this was as far as the kids that want to play, probably the third best option,” Swenson said. “But it’s better than the fourth option which was nothing. Giving the kids an opportunity to play is good. A lot of different opinions out there, whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do. We’re just going to have to go with what the decisions that were made and move forward from that.”

MSHSL’s Board of Directors basically created a four-season calendar for the 2020-2021 school year. The fall and winter seasons will continue as scheduled for now, but the spring season in which football and volleyball will be played, will go from mid-March to mid-May. Traditional spring sports such as baseball, softball and track and field will then be moved to the “summer” season from mid-May to early July.

The MSHSL also approved allowing spring sports that did not play last spring to hold practices this fall, along with volleyball and football.

For football, the changes mean there will only be six games in the regular season, rather than eight. Litchfield football coach Jim Jackman chose not to comment on the football season until he has more information about it.

“I really don’t have anything to report right now,” Jackman said in a text. “I am uncertain about what is going to happen right now.”

When it comes to scheduling for the shortened seasons, Litchfield Activities Director Justin Brown had some thoughts on how the teams’ schedules will be reduced.

FALL SPORTS

There will be some sports played this fall, but like the football and volleyball seasons, the seasons will look different.

The board approved girls tennis, girls swimming and diving, and cross country to start Aug. 17 as scheduled. Each sport is limited to two events per week. Tennis and swimming events will be limited to just two teams, while cross country events are limited to just three teams.

Boys and girls soccer seasons were also given the go-ahead to start Aug. 17, but with a 20 percent reduction in weeks, a 30 percent reduction in the number of competitions, no scrimmages are allowed, and only two games may be played per week. A decision on postseason events is yet to be determined.

“(Wright County Conference activities directors) will a take the couple of conference matches that are probably early in the season and we’ll move them toward the back,” Brown said. “We’ll fit them in once we take those invites out. We’ll get those competitions in. We don’t have a plan yet, but it will be something along those lines.”

Brown also said in an email sent out to parents that Litchfield High School’s fall musical is still planned to go on. The school will reveal more information about the show and seating capacity at a later date.

Brown’s email also said that details about middle school and ninth grade football and volleyball will be provided as soon as possible. The discussions will be made by the Wright County Conference activities directors and administration.


Business
Dental practice transition: As Mike Solbrack retires, Abigail Johnson starts career

Call it a kind of changing of the guard in Litchfield dentistry.

As Abigail Johnson joins Litchfield Family Dental as an associate, longtime dentist Mike Solbrack has begun stepping into retirement after 34 years at the practice.

Johnson started her first full week of seeing patients at the end of July, part of a transition that sees former partners Solbrack and Jim Haugo leaving and being replaced by Ryan Swenson and Johnson.

“Mike has had a great career and is really connected with the patients and the patients love him,” Johnson said. “So I’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I’m excited.”

Haugo retired three years ago, the first move in a transition plan that he and Solbrack discussed. The first step worked well, as they found Swenson to join the practice as an associate, working into the partnership over a 12-month period.

And as Solbrack moved closer to his desired retirement, those two began the search to fill Solbrack’s role.

Johnson was that person. Though she grew up in Iowa and attended college there — first at Luther College in Decorah, then dental school at University of Iowa in Iowa City — Johnson had a long connection to the area.

Her grandparents lived near Spicer and she even spent one summer working at Green Lake Bible Camp. She remembers driving through Litchfield on her way to visit family, and she was impressed with its small-town charm.

“I knew I wanted to come to Minnesota, even though I’m from Iowa,” Johnson said of her post-college plans. “My husband’s (Nathan) from Minnesota, and my mom grew up in Willmar, so there were a lot of connections here.

“I always thought Litchfield was such a nice town,” she said. “When I saw that they (Litchfield Family Dental) were looking for someone, I thought that was perfect. It all worked out really well.”

As with Swenson, Johnson will start as an associate and if all goes well, work into partnership over a 12- to 18-month period. She will begin seeing Solbrack’s client base.

“And that actually works quite well with my situation, too, as far as my ability to retire,” said Solbrack, who will work in the office one day a week, probably through the end of the year, before stepping fully into retirement.

While some people reach a point of being burned out and can’t wait to retire, Solbrack said, he’s “not that way.” He still enjoys the work and he has his health, the perfect time to do other things, he said.

“You know, I don’t have any big plans rolling around,” Solbrack said of retirement. “We’re still gonna be here (in Litchfield). We had some travel plans, which aren’t going to happen at this point in time (because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

“Mostly just trying to take it easy, and after having been doing it for 34 years, just trying to recover from that,” he added. “I have a few ideas on some things, but I’m not going to jump in there right now. We’ll see what the next phase holds.”

Johnson said she thought from an early age that she wanted to do pursue a career in the health care, and finally decided on dentistry while at Luther College. While there, Johnson shadowed a dentist, which convinced her “that would be a really good fit for me.”

She admits that her experience with her own teeth also played a role in that decision.

“When I was young, I had kind of crazy teeth that stuck out everywhere,” Johnson said. “So I had braces twice, and that was pretty critical for my self confidence. So I know that teeth can make a big difference about how you feel about yourself.”

Johnson earned awards for outstanding achievements in dental school, according to a news release from Litchfield Family Dentistry, specifically related to implant dentistry. She looks forward to putting those skills to work in her first full-time professional experience since graduating from college.

Johnson said she likes the idea of starting her career in a small town.

“I really wanted to come here, because I think the people are great, and everyone’s got a great attitude and they’re really welcoming, both the staff and the patients,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if I would find that in a larger city, so I thought it would be a really good fit for me. I can’t wait to meet everybody.”


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Litchfield City Hall to reopen on limited basis

Closed since March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Litchfield City Hall reopened on a limited basis last week.

City Administrator Dave Cziok told the Litchfield City Council at its Aug. 3 meeting, “I think the staff is prepared to start moving to opening, not a full opening, but maybe some sort of reduced hours.”

The City Council, minus two members, unanimously agreed to have the administrative team establish hours and days of operation, as well as possibly limiting the number of people in the building at one time.

Prior to the vote, Cziok said he had followed a conversation thread involving city administators from across the state, which indicated that about two-thirds of the city offices still were closed or open by appointment only. About a third had reduced hours, while a few were back to business as usual, he said.

Though staff received some complaints early in the shutdown from residents unable to access City Hall, Cziok said, the complaints have become non-existent these days. However, when he asked council members what they have heard, Ron Dingmann and Betty Allen both said they had received some complaints.

Council member Darlene Kotelnicki said she’d not received any complaints, but there have been questions about when City Hall might reopen.

“I think it’s time (to reopen),” Dingmann said, especially considering all the “precautionary methods” now in place to ensure safe distancing and cleaning at City Hall. “I think we need to take that next step.”

City Hall offices have been undergoing a remodeling to provide for better separation of staff, while at the same time allowing better view of the service counter in the building’s main lobby.

Cziok said the staff would proceed to reopening with limited days, perhaps four days a week with hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The City Council will review at its next meeting.