n Salk Middle School assistant principal performs balancing act in transition to Otsego principal post
by Jim Boyle
The first few weeks of Todd Van Erp’s 2013-14 school year have been a balancing act.
He’s had one foot in his new school as the Otsego Elementary School principal. The other has been at Salk Middle School.
At Otsego, he’s replacing Erin Talley, who was promoted to be the director of teaching and learning for the Elk River Area School District. At Salk, he’s bridging the gap between his late-summer hire and the arrival of his replacement, who’s expected to be on board this week.
“I’m heavily invested in this building,” he said, from an office that’s not his own at his soon-to-be former school. “This is a great place to be.”
Van Erp is not only referring to just Salk, he said, but also to the Elk River Area School District as a whole and now Otsego Elementary School, where he has been given a warm welcome.
He said he plans to spend the first three to six months mostly listening.
“The last thing I want to do is come in and make a bunch of changes,” he said. “Erin (Talley) has been super helpful and has a wealth of knowledge. I haven’t told her yet, but I plan to have her on speed dial.”
She’s been bouncing back and forth between the district office and Otsego Elementary School.
Taught science at the start of his career
Van Erp got his start in education as a science teacher and a coach nearly 20 years ago. He spent 12 years as a middle school and high school science teacher, including a stint at Rocori High School under Terry Bizal, who was the principal there before coming to Elk River High School.
“I had the good fortune to hire Todd,” said Bizal, who remembers Van Erp’s initial degree in mortuary science catching his eye.
While at Rocori, Van Erp gained the respect of his colleagues and made an positive change in the science department.
Van Erp has also coached numerous sports, ranging from high school baseball to youth basketball. He loved both teaching and coaching but found that what happens in the classroom energizes him most.
He said the role of a principal has grown over the years from that of a building manager to an instructional leader.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “I want to continue to do that at Otsego. I got to do it here at Salk.”
Van Erp lists AVID, Academic Edge and PBIS as some of his work that he’s most proud of.
“It’s neat to see those things come together,” he said.
Julie Athman, the Salk principal and his boss, said Van Erp’s presence at Salk will be missed.
She said in just two short years, he had quite an impact on the culture of the building with his work on implementing STRIDE, or the Students Taking Responsibility in Demonstrating Excellence program. All this while the school has been trained on Positive Behavior Intervention Supports.
Athman said he has also been instrumental in establishing a systematic plan for student intervention time or flexible schedule.
Beyond all this, Athman said Van Erp has an “exceptional strength in building relationships with students, parents and staff.”
“He is well-read and understands educational research to improve instructional strategies,” Bizal said. “His demeanor is even and cool yet he is constantly gathering data to make good decisions, sometimes against the status quo, though courageous leadership.”
This is Van Erp’s sixth year as an administrator. He got his start with various positions at a North Branch middle school and even sampled working at an elementary school. His experiences as a coach also made him a good candidate to serve in the small district as an activities director.
That experience at the elementary school helped him realize being an administrator at that level was something he wanted to pursue. He found working with elementary students in North Branch interesting and worthwhile.
Of all Van Erp’s experience in North Branch, he fondly remembers doing district-level committee work on safe schools, a community involvement day project and sitting on the superintendent’s cabinet. Van Erp said he’s not gunning for any particular position as an administrator. He said he’s enjoying the journey.
“I like to think that I make my own fun wherever I am and whatever I am doing,” he said.
Van Erp said a goal he has as a principal is to ensure Otsego Elementary School has a positive learning environment. He’s a believer in giving meaningful feedback to teachers so they can improve. He strongly believes in asking reflective questions to get educators thinking about what’s working and what’s not.
He suspects the sheer amount of challenges that being a building manager can bring could stand in the way of that endeavor.
“I need to be intentional,” he said.
First, he will finish his balancing act with Salk Middle School in Elk River and Otsego Elementary School.