Eagle Valley’s prize principal reflects on education
GYPSUM, Colorado –When Eagle Valley High School’s Mark Strakbein faced the panel interviewing him for Colorado high school principal of the year accolades, he no doubt grabbed the group’s attention when he frankly admitted he didn’t deserve the honor.
“I told them I wasn’t worthy of this award, but this school and this community are,” said Strakbein.
“The people who really won this award are the staff members and the students of Eagle Valley High School.”
That may be so, but it’s Strakbein’s name on the plaque.
Strakbein is celebrating his 15th year with Eagle County schools. He arrived in 1995 to teach physical education and work with at-risk kids at Battle Mountain High School. His wife, Karen, had been hired as the finance director for the school district and the couple was thrilled with the opportunity to move from Denver with their family – twin daughters, Morgan and Amy, and son, Chad.
“We moved here because we wanted to raise our kids in a small-town, small-school environment,” said Strakbein.
Strakbein himself was born and raised in Montrose in western Colorado. His dad was a biology teacher and when it came time to head off for college, Strakbein enrolled at Western State in Gunnison on a wrestling scholarship.
“All I wanted to do was be a head wrestling coach and teach P.E.,” he said. “Becoming a principal was the furthest thing from my mind, probably because I was always the kid who was in the principal’s office.”
Thinking that someday he might want to become an athletic director, Strakbein completed administration course work. That certification became useful a year after he arrived in Eagle County when the Battle Monuntain High School’s principal resigned. “I remember saying to the staff at Battle Mountain that I could do that job,” said Strakbein. Turns out, he got the chance.
Strakbein was the principal at Battle Monuntain for four years. It marked a big change in his professional life.
“Karen wouldn’t let me go to a state wrestling tournament for five years. We were afraid it would make me want to go back to being a wrestling coach,” he said.
But he has never looked back.
Working with kids who are having trouble making it through high school has always been a passion for Strakbein. After four years at Battle Monuntain, it became his main focus.
During the 2000-01 term, Strakbein was doing dual duty – he was acting principal at Minturn Middle School for one year and also tasked with creating a new alternative high school for Eagle County schools. His efforts resulted in the opening of Red Canyon High School in 2001. He remained at the alternative high school until the spring of 2004 when he was again transferred, this time to Eagle Valley.
“Next year will be my 15th year as a principal. Wow, that’s a long time,” he said. “The thing I am most proud of, by far, is the environment we have created in our schools.”
No one can accuse Strakbein of straying off message. Eagle Valley High School has a school philosophy based on three simple rules. Ask any student and chances are he or she can recite them:
• Know right from wrong and do what’s right.
• Always do your best.
• Treat people with respect.
Beyond the basic philosophy, Strakbein strives to keep school personal.
“We may have 750 kids, but everyone of them is an individual. Every single one of them plays a role in our success. Managing that sometimes can be a bit overwhelming.”
His hardest days on the job are days when he’s reminded about the trials and tribulations that teens face. The best days are when he gets to celebrate kids’ successes. Strakbein said the good days far outweigh the bad ones.
“We focus on creating positive energy here,” he said.
Each year, Strakbein relishes watching senior classes as they set the tone for the school. “We create leadership opportunities for them to create the climate they want to have. Every single senior class is the best one I have ever had, and I do mean that.”
For instance, he said he was impressed with the class of 2009 as its members led the school through a difficult construction year. Then the class of 2010 stepped in to claim the newly refurbished school as its own.
Shepherding the school through that massive remodel was part of Strakbein’s focus for the past couple of years. He’s justifiably proud of the new building.
“Eagle Valley, more so than any other school I have seen, plays the role of being the cornerstone of our community. That’s a responsibility for us as a building and we are thankful for it.”
For a principal who has worked at all the district’s high schools and overseen a large construction project, what’s left to provide a challenge?
“Everyone always asks how long I am planning on staying here. You never know what the future will bring but right now, I love my job and where I’m at.”
For the immediate future, Strakbein said he will be returning as principal next year. In the even more immediate future, he will be representing Colorado at the National Association of Secondary School Principals convention this summer.
As he spoke about winning the Colorado principal of the year award, Strakbein noted a bit of irony. Dr. John Hefty, former Eagle County schools superintendent and the current executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, is the person who presented him with the honor. So, the man responsible for giving him his first principal job has had the chance to see how that decision panned out.
Strakbein said he has had many role models during his career, from his Western State College wrestling coach Tracey Borah to former leaders in Eagle County schools. “And there is zero chance for me to be anywhere I am without Karen,” he said.
The Strakbein kids are all in college, now, but they all graduated from Eagle Valley while their dad was principal.
“To be your own son or daughters’ principal is something pretty special,” said Strakbein.
In the end, Strakbein feels privileged to have the chance to work with kids. “I get the chance to see what’s right in the world every day I go to work. I’ve been very blessed.”