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Willmar elementary principals were high school classmates

James Hill, left, the new principal at Roosevelt School and Todd Goggleye, Kennedy School principal talk about their plans for the coming school year.

WILLMAR -- James Hill, the new principal at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar, was raised by his grandparents and remembers growing up with little money, "on government cheese and powdered milk."

Kennedy Elementary Principal Todd Goggleye recalls being a high school senior called to the front of the classroom with two other boys. The teacher pointed at one of the boys and told him he had a chance of making something of himself. Pointing at Goggleye and the other boy, she said, "You're going to be a loser the rest of your life."

The two principals, who graduated from Minneapolis Washburn High School together in 1988, hope to use their childhood experiences and their education to help guide the young children in Willmar's two large K-5 elementary schools.

Hill is still unpacking in his office, preparing to start his first year at Roosevelt. Goggleye came to Kennedy a year ago.

They hope their personal stories can help them lead by example with a diverse student body where more than half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

Both of them came from low-income families and are first-generation college students, Goggleye said. "For both of us, we've had people in our lives that pushed us through," he said, and he hopes the staff and volunteers in the schools can help do that for Willmar students.

Goggleye said that an accepting and supportive environment at school had made a big difference for him when he was a child.

"We're going to love every kid who comes through this door," he said.

"We think every kid should be a success story," Hill said. "We hope kids will be in a nurturing environment and that they will feel loved."

Diverse and low-income student populations are not new to either principal. And with both schools under state orders to close the achievement gaps between different groups of students, their experience is what the district was seeking.

Both men stressed that they and the staff will be doing the best job they can for every child in their buildings while they work to close the gaps.

"Todd and I are faced with significant challenges," Hill said. While it's important that students of color show significant improvement, it's equally important that all students are challenged and show academic growth, he added.

"We need to make sure we have high expectations for every kid," he said.

Hill praised Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard for hiring them. "To bring a Native American and an African American to lead these schools, the decision to do that, to me, took a lot of courage," Hill said. "He's making decisions that have never been made here before."

It's probably good for the district to have some non-white administrators, Kjergaard said, but he didn't set out to hire principals of color. Their experience and credentials fit the district's needs, and "they were the best choices," he said.

Goggleye had experience leading a school implementing a turnaround plan, and that was what he was seeking for Kennedy a year ago, he said.

When former Roosevelt Principal Nathan Cox left for another job, he sought another experienced principal.

It's a bit of a coincidence that he hired high school classmates. Goggleye encouraged Hill to apply for the Roosevelt position, but the hiring decision was based on Hill's credentials and performance, Kjergaard said.

"Todd already is, and I'm confident James will be a good principal," he said.

Goggleye had been a principal at Anishinabe and Elizabeth Hall magnet schools in Minneapolis.

Hill was an assistant principal at Mankato East High school before working as principal of an alternative high school in the Osseo School District.

The two said they hope to develop some joint programs for the two schools and to keep the curriculum and lesson plans aligned. That should help students who transfer from one building to the other when their families move.

One new joint program will present the same guidelines for encouraging positive behavior for all students.

"Some kids don't hear positive stuff at home," Goggleye said, so he and his staff try to find different ways to reward the kids for the good things they do.

The schools will be busy this year implementing a new reading curriculum and continuing efforts to make sure their math and reading teaching follows state standards.

The Minneapolis natives, both married to women from rural Minnesota, said they are happy to be in rural Minnesota.

"There's something to be said for small town relationships with big city amenities," Hill said. "For me, it's all about the relationships." His wife is from Spicer and is related to Kodet and Lippert families in the area.

"I've been a city guy all my life," Goggleye said, but he doesn't long to move back. "We absolutely love it here; we don't want to go back to the city." His wife, who is from Sleepy Eye, saw her blood pressure drop after moving to Willmar, he added.

There's a sense of community in Willmar and rural Minnesota that's just not found in bigger city schools, he said. He said in his first year in Willmar that he was impressed by the community's generosity when it came to recognizing kids for their hard work.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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