Basalt Middle School, which is getting a new principal - Jennifer Ellsperman.
Basalt Middle School, which is getting a new principal – Jennifer Ellsperman. Credit: Christina Capaaso / Aspen Journalism

Basalt public school students will have two new faces to get used to next year as leaders of Basalt Middle School and Basalt High School — principals Jennifer Ellsperman at the middle school and Peter Mueller at the high school — assume their new roles.

The two recent hires will take over for the 2015-16 school year, replacing former principals David Schmid at the high school and Jeremy Voss at the middle school.

Jennifer Ellsperman

Jennifer Ellsperman, the principal at the Basalt Middle School.
Jennifer Ellsperman, the principal at the Basalt Middle School. Credit: Courtesy photo

Plenty of students already are familiar with Ellsperman, who has been assistant principal at Basalt Elementary School for the past three years and taught at the middle school for nine years before that.

Ellsperman, 44, is married and has two teenage children. She has 22 years of educational experience under her belt, including nine years as a teacher of math, science and other subjects in the Garfield School District Re-2 (New Castle, Silt and Rifle).

Her background includes a master’s degree in educational leadership, a special-education bachelor’s degree, experience as a coordinator of a gifted-and-talented course, leadership work in the CREW program recently introduced to the Basalt schools and collaborative work at the state level to improve science instruction and curriculum, according to information on the Roaring Fork School District website.

“All along, I’ve really been passionate about meeting the needs of the whole child,” Ellsperman said of her career in education, noting that one of her particular passions these days can be found in the CREW programs, which are described on the website as offering “a dedicated time in student schedules to focus on character skills and social-emotional learning” as well as the standard academic work.

The program involves setting up a CREW team of students, monitored and guided by a teacher, to help develop strong leadership skills and the “habits of a scholar” for use later in life.

As this is her first time in the principal’s role, but not her first job as an administrator, Ellsperman said she is eager to get started.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “I feel the weight of the position more than I would have three years ago before I started as assistant principal.”

She views her job as critical to getting teachers excited about teaching and finding ways to empower and excite the students, too.

Regarding one of the more controversial aspects of secondary education today, standardized testing, Ellsperman said she felt it has been beneficial to the Basalt schools in that they have consistently scored high in the testing regimen.

But, she added, “I think some people overemphasize the assessment. I think it is not the most important thing in a school.”

What is more important, she said, is “giving kids rigorous and relevant work that they’re interested in and that they feel is like the work that they would be doing in the community.”

An example, she said, is a “flex class” in the seventh grade that offers changes in focus in different quarters of the school year, identifying problems in the community at large and finding ways to work on those problems, such as recycling or working with charitable organizations to alleviate poverty.

The learning in these kinds of programs, she said, “transfers over into the assessment.”

In general, she said, “The less you emphasize the tests, the better the kids do on the tests.”

Her most important starting goal, though, will be to listen to teachers and students about where the school’s focus should be.

“I’m not going in there with an agenda,” she stressed.

Peter Mueller

Peter Mueller, the principal of Basalt High School.
Peter Mueller, the principal of Basalt High School. Credit: Courtesy photo

Peter Mueller is the new principal at Basalt High, having been hired away from his previous job at The Nature Conservancy, where he has led the organization’s efforts to restore, protect and enhance the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado.

Prior to the conservancy job, according to information on the district website, he was principal at the middle and high school levels in the Telluride R-1 School District from 2004 to 2007. He also worked as director at the Rocky Mountain Academy in Evergreen, a K-8 school, where his duties included hiring, evaluating and guiding instruction for 22 full- and part-time teachers.

Mueller graduated in 2001 from the Harvard Graduate School of Education after earning his undergraduate degree in government from Colby College in 1987.

Mueller, 51, who was out of town this week, told the Sopris Sun in a phone interview that he is married with two children who graduated from high school this year. He said that he views his new job as “a great opportunity to work with a community that is committed to all of its schools.”

He noted that he has a prior connection to the Roaring Fork Valley, having taught high school English at Colorado Rocky Mountain School for nine years and worked with the Outward Bound educational programs in Colorado from 1998 to 2000.

He said he hopes to bring some of that outdoor education experience to the Basalt school, saying, “It’s about engaging kids on different levels than just the classroom,” an educational philosophy he said includes art and theater as well as heading into the outdoors.

He also said he is looking forward to working with teachers and students in the CREW program, which he said is similar to a program he worked with in Telluride called the Advisor program.

Roaring Fork School District Chief Academic Officer Rob Stein told the Sopris Sun by phone that he expects the two principals will fit in well at their new jobs.

“In neither case were we looking for a change,” he said of hiring the two to replace the outgoing principals. “We were very sorry to see the two outgoing principals leave.”

Noting that every principal has his or her own particular style and priorities to bring to the job, Stein said, “Both schools are on the right trajectory, and we’re looking to continue to see strong performances.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of schools and education. The Times published this story on Monday, June 15, 2014.