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Wisconsin Names Principals of the Year

Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, and Jim Lynch, executive director for the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA), announced Wisconsin’s 2017 Principals of the Year, an award Meemic is proud to sponsor. The two principals share a passion for challenging students while meeting students’ needs.
Wisconsin honorees for 2017 are Daniel H. Westfahl (left), Brookfield Elementary School, Elmbrook School District, and James Murray, Waukesha STEM Academy, Waukesha School District.
“School leadership has a profound impact on the climate of a school and the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom,” Evers said. “Our 2017 Principals of the Year take this fact to heart as they work to ensure every student is learning and progressing toward college and career readiness.”
“More than being a leader of a school, principals serve to provide support for teachers to shine every day in their jobs as instructors,” Lynch said. “It is an honor to have so many exceptional leaders in our schools.”

Principal of the Year Daniel H. Westfahl

Under Westfahl’s leadership, Brookfield Elementary School has seen improvement in students’ reading and mathematics achievement as well as achievement gap closure among student groups. The school’s dramatic improvements in student achievement is in part due to a devotion to literacy within his school community. Westfahl developed parent book clubs and schoolwide read aloud sessions to encourage reading; his schoolwide Mindset book club has grown to a districtwide discussion. Additionally, Westfahl’s focus on inclusion helps model a school where every child learns something new every day.
Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Dana Monogue remarks on inclusion, saying it “has helped several teacher teams work through difficult student situations that sincerely benefited the students in the end.” She indicates that Westfahl provides reassurance, resources, and encouragement because he is unwilling to let others give up on a student.
Westfahl serves on several district-level and community committees. He is a recipient of a Herb Kohl Teacher Fellowship and AASA Leadership for Learning award. By participating with teachers in summer reading workshops and weekly discussions about mathematics, Westfahl says he feels he is better able to provide feedback. “I will co-teach with them and discuss how best to meet the needs of every child. I am present during team meetings and find time to talk with every teacher every day.”
Brookfield Elementary has recently developed a partnership with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to find ways for young learners to connect with classical music and performers. Monthly student council meetings, where more than 100 students are in attendance, provide a platform to develop goals and service projects to help others. Extracurricular activities are plentiful for a range of interests and activities.
Westfahl earned a doctorate from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee in 2009, and has continued his learning at Wisconsin Lutheran College for special education licensure. He served as a first-grade teacher for 16 years before becoming a principal and gives back to the community through participation with St. John’s Lutheran School Board of Education, Elmbrook Swim Club, and the Wisconsin Lutheran College Teacher Advisory Committee.

Principal of the Year James Murray

The Waukesha STEM Academy opened in 2010, committed to personalized learning for all students. From his initial role as a teacher and project-based learning facilitator to his work as principal and instructional leader, Murray nurtures that vision and mission. “No matter where students are when they enter our doors, our mission is to help every student find success through engagement and to understand themselves as a learner, but more importantly, as a person,” he said.
His leadership style is “in the trenches” with staff, mentors, parents, and especially students. School staff strive to personally connect with every student daily. This contact enables staff to know each student on a first name basis, spur conversations, help with social and academic difficulties, and diffuse any potential conflicts. With those consistent relationships, students who did not believe they could succeed in school, start to trust that they are in a place where it’s safe to take risks in their learning. Students are encouraged to “try new ideas, even if they may not work out,” says Murray. And while the academy focuses on STEM-related fields and jobs, students are given every opportunity to explore relevant, real-life interests through STEM-Pathways Seminars.
Murray was instrumental in moving the STEM Academy from an age and grade-based structure to having students move at their own pace based on proficiency because students “come to us at different places and move at different paces.” The proficiency-based personalized learning allows students at higher readiness levels to excel at a much quicker and personalized pace. Students in the lowest percentiles for math and literacy have shrunk to single digit numbers.
Murray earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His master's in administration and leadership in curriculum and instruction is from Concordia University in Mequon. His community service includes park clean-up at Saratoga Park in Waukesha County, garden cleanup and vegetable harvesting for the Green Powered Gardens Partnership, offering arts and crafts sessions at Oak Hill Terrace, and hosting a community showcase for the Waukesha County Business Alliance.
The 2017 Principals of the Year were among 12 public school educators who received Leadership Awards from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation earlier this spring. Criteria for being chosen to represent the state’s school principals and assistant or associate principals include setting high standards for instruction, achievement, and character and creating a climate to best serve students, families, staff, and community.
The Principal of the Year Selection Committee is made up of representatives from AWSA, the Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, and the Wisconsin PTA. Major support comes from the Meemic Insurance Company. “They are great partners in recognizing exemplary educational leadership,” Lynch said.