Skyview's Pothast earns recognition with dedication

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2004

It's no surprise to staff at Skyview High School that Principal John Pothast is gaining some extra attention this year.

Teachers old and new at the school praise Pothast's commitment to his staff and his approach to education, and have positive words for their boss.

"He's hands down (one of) the best principals I've ever worked for," said biology teacher Robert Carson.

It seems educators from across the state agree.

In October, Pothast was named Region III Principal of the Year by his colleagues. The award honored his work during the 2002-03 school year in Region III of Alaska, which includes the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, Kodiak and Valdez. In February, Pothast went on to be named the Alaska High School Principal of the Year for the 2003-04 school year by MetLife and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Pothast first came to Skyview five years ago, when he left 10 years of educating in Yuma, Ariz., to come to Alaska.

"We've trained him well," laughed longtime English and drama teacher Terri Zopf-Schoessler. "He definitely came on the Alaska adventure. He spent that first year just trying to figure out where everything was. But he's coming into his own now."

Schoessler said one of Pothast's strengths is his knowledge of technology.

"He definitely brought us into the 21st century," she said. "I have reason to believe he sleeps with his Palm Pilot."

Joking aside, Pothast agreed that technology is his forte.

"I'm a technogeek," he said.

Pothast has expanded use of Palm Pilots among staff at the school and taught training courses for the handhelds across the state. He also pushes the use of technology for students in the school.

"We have not only the infrastructure, with the borough contributions to get the schools hardwired and filled with computers, but it's also the number of the level of computer classes we do," he said. "Really what I push is technology."

But being principal isn't just about training and organization. Staff at the school also praise Pothast for his communication and leadership skills and his approach to education.

"He encourages us to do our best and keep the school not too serious; to enjoy teaching and the kids will feed on that," Carson said. "He's really good at getting all the staff involved."

"I really appreciate his leadership style, the way he approaches problems," agreed Assistant Principal Bob Ermold.

"I appreciate and like his style of communication. I think he believes in being open with the staff and working together with them, especially when we're facing difficult situations like budget cuts or staff reductions."

Ermold's experience, in fact, might be most telling of the staff's support for Pothast.

"I worked under John as a teacher for two years," he said. "When this position opened up, I sought out the opportunity because I was familiar with his leadership style and wanted to work with him.

"He's been great this year as far as being a mentor to me."

Mentors are actually something Pothast believes strongly in, noting another highlight of his time at Skyview as the implementation of a student mentoring program.

The aspirations program, which pairs students with volunteer mentors from the community, kicked off at Skyview three years ago and has spread to 10 schools in the district.

"We're dealing with kids who might otherwise not be in school, but they get connected with adults in the community," Pothast said.

Kids, after all, are the reason for Pothast's job, and he makes quite an effort to stay involved with them.

Years ago, Pothast recognized that sports were an integral part of the school community at Skyview, with about 70 percent of the student body participating in athletics. So, he started practicing with a few teams in sports he was comfortable with, like running.

"The kids got a kick out of it," Pothast said. "And others started asking, 'When are you going to practice with us?'"

Now, Pothast completes at least one full practice with each sports team every year, be it hockey, basketball, track or cheerleading.

"I've made connections with kids I never imagined," he said.

He's also made connections to professional educators across the state, elected this year to serve as president-elect of the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals a role he said benefits Skyview as he collects ideas from educators statewide and brings them home.

But whether he's lobbying in Washington, D.C., and Juneau, leading staff meeting or running laps with the track team, Ermold said Pothast is all about one thing: "He always keeps his focus on what's in the best interest of the student or teacher."

"He doesn't lose sight of what's important," Ermold said.

That, too, is obvious in Pothast's reaction to his awards this year.

"To me, it's a reinforcement that we are doing good things here at Skyview," Pothast said. "We have tremendous students and tremendous staff, and if you surround yourself with excellent people, they make you look good."

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