NASSP’s 2021 Digital Principals of the Year
Each year, NASSP recognizes three principals who harness the power of technology to further learning goals as Digital Principals of the Year. This year, while most school leaders used some form of technology for virtual schooling, three principals in particular stood out: Marcus Belin, principal of Huntley High School in Huntley, IL; Cindy Sholtys-Cromwell, principal of Kelso Virtual Academy in Kelso, WA; and Trevor Goertzen, principal of Spring Hill Middle School in Spring Hill, KS.
Marcus Belin was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. He learned the value of education and realized it was his calling at a young age—he’s a fifth-generation educator—so he jumped in with both feet right out of Bradley University in Peoria, IL, and headed into the classroom. He started teaching social studies to fifth- and sixth-graders at Quest Charter Academy, a brand new charter school in Peoria. When he had free time, Belin visited other classrooms and the dean’s office to continue learning and see where he could improve his own teaching.
After his second year, the dean of students position became available while Belin finished his master’s degree at Bradley. He wanted the role, but his school administration liked him as a classroom teacher because he was good with the students and, honestly, they didn’t want to lose him to administration. But, two weeks before the semester started, his principal called him and offered him the job. He said, “We can’t find anyone who connects with the students the way you do.” Belin was 23 years old when he became dean of students for Quest Charter Academy High School. He held that position for two years and then was assistant principal for one year. During that time, he was named one of Illinois’ 40 Leaders Under 40.
After that year, Belin left that position to become the assistant principal at Dunlap High School in Dunlap, IL, where he led for two years. He then became the principal of Huntley High School in Huntley, IL. During his transition and into his second year at Huntley, Belin finished his doctoral program in education at National Louis University. In 2021, Belin was named president of the Illinois Principals Association, becoming its first Black president and the youngest to hold the position.
Belin uses technology to create a positive school culture. Student Kiersten Hornberg says that Belin “utilizes technology to make connection possible. … Dr. Belin consistently maintains an energetic online presence, especially through the Huntley High School Instagram account, where he offers informational bits and updates about happenings around HHS and celebrates students’ accomplishments.”
Huntley High School runs a nationally recognized blended learning program and a competency-based education program called Vanguard Vision (Vanguard). Vanguard recognizes that students learn differently and at different paces on unique paths. With varied practice, differentiated instruction, and multiple opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills, all students can achieve success. Through Vanguard, students can move through core content at a negotiated pace and onto higher-level classes. They also have the opportunity to complete their graduation requirements early, but the main focus is that students can show mastery in their core content classes and leave no gaps in their knowledge of the content.
Blended learning, in its simplest form, is a combination of online and face-to-face learning. While many schools across the country have some form of blended learning, Huntley practices a novel approach focused on breaking down the time constraints of the traditional school day, giving students more ownership over their own time and place for learning, and enabling differentiation to meet the instructional needs of all students. But with so many students utilizing the online option, Belin still wants the school to have a sense of community, so he employs social media to reach out to students.
Community is driving culture. Belin thrives on networking with other principals and wants students to gain the same benefits by working and interacting together. “I believe some of Dr. Belin’s most meaningful acts as our leader have been small-but-mighty gestures through video that have empowered us to come together at a time when we have never been more disconnected,” says Alyssa Gilleland, an English teacher at Huntley. “As an educator, I saw my principal lead by example for the most important part of our work: connecting with our students and one another no matter what. I was inspired to do the same.” Keeping the students and community connected is paramount to Belin’s job, which he believes is helping students become who they are meant to be.
Outside of school, Belin enjoys spending time with his family: his wife, Monique; daughters Maliyah (7) and Makenzie (5); and son, Mekhi (3). They enjoy family time and staying centered in their faith at church to create their own community. Belin has played the piano since he was 6 but has fallen out of practice over the past few years; he’d like to get back into honing that skill.
Cindy Sholtys-Cromwell was born on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Toppenish, WA. She started her career in education as a Family Consumer Science and math teacher at the alternative school on the reservation. After less than two years, her principal made it clear that Sholtys-Cromwell needed to become a principal, and she went for it! After receiving her master’s degree in education from Heritage University in Toppenish, WA, she sent out resumes, agreeing with her husband that they would choose the first school that made an offer and move there. Her first job landed the family in Kelso, WA, where she spent seven years as the assistant principal of Coweeman Middle School and then 13 years as the principal of Butler Acres Elementary School. In the summer of 2020, she moved into the position of principal of Kelso Virtual Academy.
When Sholtys-Cromwell became principal there, the school had one teacher for grades 8–12 and 30 students. Less than three months later, it had 60 teachers—all from the Kelso School District family—and 1,000 students at the start of fall classes. Some of the increase was due to the pandemic. Within the three summer months, Sholtys-Cromwell made the academy a 1:1 Chromebook school, opened it to all students K–12, negotiated with the teachers’ union to have current teachers expand their reach into the virtual world, and chose a new curriculum for the K–8 students.
Sholtys-Cromwell admits she’s partial to creating organizational systems, so that’s what she did, but she is quick to note that she didn’t do it alone. “We all committed to putting in long hours. There were nights we were at the school until 10 or 11 p.m.,” she says. The days and nights were long, but they persevered because “failure was not an option.” The school had to be ready on day one.
“Kelso School District is a proudly proactive district that chooses to face challenges head on,” says J’aime Graff, coordinator of the Highly Capable Program. “Cindy embodies this. … Obstacles seemed to surface daily; I never saw Cindy get discouraged.”
“[She] has demonstrated not only teamwork excellence but a culture of exceptional connectivity with our virtual staff, students, and families,” says Superintendent Mary Beth Tack. “She will tell you that all of her hard work building the virtual academy was worth it because she can see hope in her students and their families’ eyes when she meets with them, and for her, inspiring that hope within them—whether that is helping them academically, emotionally, or physically—is paramount to her job as principal.”
Outside of her school roles, Sholtys-Cromwell is very active in her state and national associations. She has served on the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP). She has contributed articles to their quarterly magazine and has presented at the AWSP state conference on the topic of “Commitment to Supporting the ‘Whole’ Staff.” She is also a member of NASSP and NAESP. Each month, Sholtys-Cromwell creates a newsletter called “School Celebration Newsletter,” which is shared worldwide and provides principals with quick and easy ways to enhance their school climate.
At home, Sholtys-Cromwell loves spending time with her immediate and extended family. Her daughter, Kenzington (17), is a senior in high school and plays the French horn and mellophone in band, and her son, Cooper (15), a freshman, is heavily involved in baseball. Husband Leszek, a social worker at Lower Columbia College in Longview, WA, is “the love of my life.” They spend their time at their son’s baseball games or cheering on their daughter as she plays with the band.
Given the changing needs of students during the pandemic, the number of students for the Kelso Virtual Academy has dropped to around 500. However, the academy has been approved as a multi-district choice school for Washington, which means that students from all over the state are now eligible to attend her school. Ultimately, Sholtys-Cromwell will be spending her time organizing and inspiring thousands of students.
Trevor Goertzen’s favorite quote that guides his thinking is “Don’t make decisions about kids without kids.” He loves his job at Spring Hill Middle School because he enjoys connecting with the students and parents of Spring Hill, KS—he is fulfilled because he feels needed.
“I look up to [Mr. Goertzen] as an inspiration and role model,” says one of his students, Echo Hubbard. “He’s kept us going through some of the darkest times of this pandemic. He is someone who students can feel comfortable going to for help and not be afraid to ask or address themselves.” But he almost wasn’t in education.
Goertzen’s foray into the education field is a bit ironic. He admits he really struggled academically when he was in elementary school and got into some trouble. But even then he noticed which adults treated him fairly while he displayed “obnoxious and challenging behaviors.” When he reached middle level and high school, he had many coaches and teachers, some good and some bad. The good ones encouraged Goertzen to go into public service, so he considered being a preacher or a teacher. He became a teacher so he could have a wide range of influence on young minds.
But Goertzen also enjoys connecting with and learning from other principals as well, so he created a podcast, ListenUp. He has over 60 episodes that he has shared every two weeks for the past three years. Initially, he had no idea how to create a podcast, he admits, but he just called up other Kansas principals and asked if they wanted to be a part of it. The tagline for his podcast is “Celebrating and telling the stories of Kansas principals.” By telling the stories and networking with other principals, Goertzen feels he has become a better principal himself. He admits that keeping up with the podcast this past year has been difficult because of the pandemic, but it is not something he is willing to give up because he wants principals to be celebrated and their stories to be shared.
From his podcast came the idea for a student-principal advisory team, so he polled his teachers and asked them to recommend students who were not necessarily ones that stood out but those who often go overlooked. He knew how the school looked through the eyes of his more vocal students. He wanted to know how he could improve his school culture with the “fly-under-the-radar” kids. He called 26 students to the auditorium (many of whom were scared of being called in by the principal!). But then he invited them to be a part of his team. They were thrilled. Using Joe Coles’ book The Uncommon Leader for Success: A Process for Growing Young Leaders as an inspiration, he asked his students how they could make Spring Hill Middle School an uncommon middle school. He meets with them twice a month at the end of the school day to explore ways to create a cohesive community.
Goertzen’s teachers appreciate his leadership style. “Spring Hill Middle School has a culture where teachers feel empowered to blend old-school wisdom with new technology,” says Meka Bauer, an instructional coach. “Mr. Goertzen has worked with staff to build this culture so that we can best meet the needs of all of our students.”
Parents concur. Stephanie Herthel, an SHMS parent, adds, “His effective use of Facebook and Twitter tells of amazing learning through rich use of technology during remote learning and in the classroom. [His] #Findaway leadership (seek innovation) allowed for quality app purchases. SmartMusic provides tone, pitch, and rhythm correction and for the teacher to put together a concert when in-person learning wasn’t possible. Math utilizes technology apps to give instant feedback to the students during remote and independent work time … I am sure my son is not the only one who is thankful for such a COOL way to learn, review, and enhance learning in such an individual way.”
Goertzen also enjoys spending time with his family, which includes his wife, Stephanie; children Luke (11), Will (9), and Jane (6); and their golden doodle, Annie. He describes them as a very active and outdoorsy family. They enjoy sports such as bike riding. Goertzen is an avid bow hunter and shares his experiences with his children so they can understand where their food comes from. And, while you can’t hunt it, he has also started a quest to make the “best cheesecake ever.
Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.
Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections
Strategy 3: Encouraging the use of technology. You can actively seek new and different technology resources that may bolster student learning. Technology is often a source of connection to a broader world, a way to personalize learning for students, and a tool to find interconnections between concepts. Technology can also be a source of support for initiatives that indirectly support student learning, such as building management and operations. Furthermore, technology can open doors to individuals previously locked out of learning and, in turn, can make learning more inclusive.
Innovation is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.