Dan Rispens said he will have big shoes to fill when he takes over the position of East Helena Public Schools superintendent on July 1.
Rispens will step into a role that has been held by Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer for the past 19 years. Whitmoyer will retire July 30 after nearly two decades in the role and many more years in the district.
Whitmoyer is well-loved in East Helena, and Rispens hopes to be equally approachable.
"Nobody will ever be able to fill those shoes, but I think I have the potential to do as good if not a better job than someone from outside East Helena," Rispens said. "Ron has always been very approachable and he is very visible in the East Helena community. I hope to be the same way."
Rispens said following Whitmoyer is somewhat intimidating, but Rispens has followed him before. Rispens started out his career as a substitute teacher and bus driver in Helena and East Helena. His first teaching job was as an English teacher at Helena High School. In 2001, Rispens earned his master's degree in educational leadership and took on the role of athletic director and vice principal at East Valley Middle School.
The following year, then-EVMS Principal Ron Whitmoyer moved into the superintendent role and Rispens took over as the EVMS principal. In 2019, Rispens began serving as East Helena High School's principal while still running EVMS.
Over the past several years, Whitmoyer has let Rispens in on some of what it takes to be the district's superintendent. Rispens said he has learned a lot from watching Whitmoyer, who has been like a mentor to him over the years.
Rispens never expected to rise from the role of substitute teacher and bus driver to the district's highest staff position.
"You know, I was never a kid that even really liked school," Rispens said. "When I went to college I originally pursued a degree in musical composition, but after a while I realized that was not something I wanted to do. I was two years in and wanted to finish some kind of degree, and I had a professor remark that I was a pretty good writer so I got my English degree."
Ripsens said it the ability to work with kids that drove him into this career path. He said working with kids is way more fun than working with adults. Rispens views his job as creating a positive environment where kids can learn.
For Rispens, deciding to lead EHHS and eventually apply for the superintendent's role were not easy for him. He said his job at EVMS was amazing and he had an incredible staff there.
"I worked really hard on the design and development process of this school (EHHS). People in East Helena have a very specific set of expectations for it. It would have been nearly impossible for me to walk away from that and hand it over to someone else," Rispens said. "If someone else ran it, it could possibly become just another high school. I felt an obligation to see it play out."
He said the superintendent still has significant influence over the high school, and the district in East Helena is small enough that the superintendent is still heavily involved in the day-to-day operations.
"I feel like in the superintendent position I can continue a lot of work we've already been doing," Rispens said. "Also, it was more concerning to me to hand over the whole district to someone not from East Helena than just the high school."
Rispens said it's unusual for a superintendent to remain in the position for 19 years. He doesn't know if the district will get 19 years out of him, but he knows the position won't be a revolving door as long as he is around.
"There is not only a lot of history and a lot of culture in this district, but there is also a lot invested into our programs," Rispens said. "I just wanted there to be some continuity in leadership."
Rispens said one thing he believes the district will need to work on for the next few years will be catching everyone up on core training. He said there are core trainings that many of the district's newer staff haven't completed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
"Making sure that is done by all staff will be very important over the next few years," Rispens said. "Those programs will help get them the training and the understanding they need to be a part of East Helena schools."
Rispens said the district has an understanding of things like the culture of poverty, how to address discipline and the value of communicating with parents.
"Bringing people up to speed on these things is not something we can be relaxed about," Rispens said. "We will have to proactive, and thankfully I have the basis to continue that."
Rispens said he still has a lot to learn, but he hopes that the people of the East Helena district will be patient with him as he takes over the role.
"I might make some dumb mistakes, but I hope people will give me some leeway," Rispens said. "I'll always do whatever I can to address any issues."