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When Whitehall's Hannah Nieskens learned she’d been selected as one of three finalists for the prestigious National Principal of the Year award from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, she says she was “really surprised.”

But maybe she shouldn’t have been.

In April, the Montana Association of Secondary Schools Principals named Nieskens state principal of the year.

And in just three years at the helm of both Whitehall Middle School and Whitehall High School, she has brought about “a whole change in attitude about how we succeed,” says John Sullivan, superintendent of the Whitehall School District.

She’s introduced new curricula, adjusted school scheduling and staffing, updated instructional materials, created new career and technical opportunities, purchased new equipment, tapped into the Montana Digital Academy to offer online classes in subjects like oceanography and anatomy, added advanced-placement courses, and created dual-credit opportunities through a partnership with Butte’s Highlands College, among other changes.

The results, Sullivan says, are easy to see among the approximately 220 students Nieskens oversees in the two interconnected schools where she is principal. In the middle school, failing grades are down 63 percent, while student proficiency is up 45 percent in reading and 31 percent in math. In addition, office referrals for disciplinary issues have declined by some 80 percent, according to Neiskins.

But perhaps the most concrete manifestation of the progress she has helped bring about can be found in students’ average ACT scores. When Nieskens took over as principal in Whitehall three years ago, the school was ranked 99th statewide for average ACT score. A year later, the school rose to number 25. A year after that, Whitehall students had the sixth-highest average ACTs in the state.

For Nieskens, these improvements are evidence that her efforts to provide students in relatively small Whitehall with the “same advantages that big schools have” are working.

And Sullivan adds that rural schools like Whitehall’s have advantages of their own: “We have good kids that come from a farm and ranch community and know the value of hard work.”

Though she was born and raised in the decidedly different — and urban — environment of San Francisco, Nieskens is no stranger to hard work. She first came to Montana in 1996 to attend Montana State University on full-ride presidential scholarship. After graduating with a degree in elementary education, she spent four years teaching fifth and sixth grades in Billings. After enduring a 26-day teachers strike there, Nieskens says it “changed how I felt about teaching in Montana,” where she was making $26,000 a year. So she set off for Mesquite, Nevada, where she worked as an educational computing strategist.

While there, her husband Kelly was deployed to Iraq with the Army. After he was shot and injured, Kelly Nieskens returned home to begin a lengthy process of recovery, and the Nieskenses decided to return to Montana in 2009. They ended up in Wolf Point, not far from Kelly Nieskens’s hometown of Scobey. For the next six years, Hannah Nieskens worked in local schools, including as the principal of North Side Elementary on the Fort Peck Reservation.

When the principal position in Whitehall became available in 2015, Nieskens applied.

While she is devoted to her day job, Nieskens has also helped raise three children, one of whom serves in the Air Force and two of whom attend Whitehall middle schools; been named an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow, a two-year appointment that allows her to advocate for caregivers of wounded veterans; and earned a law degree, which she says she pursued not so she could enter the legal profession but so she could better navigate the often litigious world of education.

Despite all she has accomplished, Nieskens is humble about how change happens and what her recent recognition means.

“This isn’t an award that you get as an individual,” she says.

While Sullivan agrees that improvements in Whitehall’s secondary schools were a team effort, he acknowledges the importance of Nieskens’s leadership: “She expects students to achieve, and she expects staff to achieve, and everyone’s bought in.”

Going forward, Nieskens plans to continue to advocate for Whitehall’s schools and for rural education more broadly, including in September, when she will head to Washington D.C. for the 2018 NASSP Principals Institute.

While there, she will meet with Montana’s congressional delegation and bring to their attention the unique challenges rural students face — and the solutions that might help them succeed.

Sullivan is hoping Nieskens will continue to find success, too.

“It’s pretty cool for a small, little rural school district that she could be the national principal of the year,” Sullivan says. “It’s pretty cool.”

The national Principal of the Year Award will be announced in October.

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