BROOKINGS – Chris Gruenhagen, then the interim assistant principal at Brookings High School, read the names of graduating seniors during the 2016 BHS commencement ceremony.
He had known most of these students since they had been in the fifth grade – his first year teaching in Brookings.
“It was a rewarding experience,” Gruenhagen said. “To see students go from fifth-graders my first year teaching (at Medary Elementary) to graduating seniors and getting the chance to read their names off was pretty cool. I got to see the cycle that a student takes. I mean, half the students in high school that year were students that I had taught P.E. to at Medary.”
Gruenhagen returned to Medary this past school year as interim principal but will shed the interim tag this fall for his first full year as Medary’s principal.
Gruenhagen is originally from Mankato, Minnesota, where he attended Mankato West High School. There he competed in cross-country and track and field, where his athletic success eventually brought him to SDSU.
“I had teachers and coaches (in high school) that encouraged me to go in the teaching route,” Gruenhagen said. “SDSU is the door that opened me to Brookings.”
At SDSU, Gruenhagen enrolled in the physical education program while also competing for the Jackrabbit cross-country/track and field teams.
After graduating, Gruenhagen student taught at Medary in the fall of 2007 while also serving as volunteer assistant coach for the high school track team. In fall 2008, Gruenhagen was hired at Medary full time, where he spent seven years teaching P.E.
During that time period, Gruenhagen pursued a master’s degree at SDSU in educational administration – the first step needed in becoming a principal. Gruenhagen was required to do an internship with the school (while also working full-time) before graduating in 2012. This included working with high school principal Paul von Fischer as well as Medary principal Rich Brubakken.
“It was a great opportunity and experience for me to see the average student’s day – outside of the gym where I was teaching, it was like two different worlds,” Gruenhagen said. “For me teaching P.E., I was in my own world. I did my instruction, lesson planning, and worked with the learners that came through the gym, but rarely did I get an opportunity to see them outside that.”
Gruenhagen took on more of a leadership role, both in the school and the district, following graduation – something he was encouraged to do.
“When Mr. Brubakken was at a meeting or out for the day, he would often ask me to fill in that role as principal,” Gruenhagen said. “I wouldn’t say that I was striving to become a principal (when pursuing a master’s degree), but found out through experience that it was something that I might enjoy doing.”
In the summer of 2015, an interim position for assistant principal came open at the high school. Gruenhagen, now having the requisite degree and fair amount of experience, was encouraged to at least apply and go through with the interview process to see how things worked.
“I was offered a one-year position, and while it was a big learning curve it was also a great experience working with Dr. von Fischer and Kathy Livingston in the main office,” Gruenhagen said. “It was a big change from being at an elementary school, but I felt like things went really well.”
Gruenhagen then returned to the classroom, where he taught P.E., health and wellness at both the middle school and high school.
Back to Medary
Gruenhagen served as the interim principal at Medary starting in January, before dumping the interim tag and becoming the new hire at Medary in April.
“Frankly, he had proven himself during the interim time that he had (at Medary),” Brookings School District Superintendent Klint Willert said. “He did it very well with both grace and poise, and the presence of someone that has shown maturity in his leadership development skills.”
Gruenhagen is excited to return to the school where he got his start at teaching in Brookings.
“I love working with the staff here at Medary,” Gruenhagen said. “The student population really brings a lot of positivity to our staff with their excitement to learn and grow.”
“His presence is very affirming, positive and uplifting,” Willert said. “He is all about recognizing people in the act of doing good, and I really appreciated that. That’s the type of climate and culture that we want in all of our schools, and he has really fostered that in his mindset and approach.”
Gruenhagen says that he enjoys the excitement that being a principal brings.
“Things are different every day, and you don’t really know what to expect,” Gruenhagen said. “The change throughout the day was exciting to me and pushed me into being a principal.”
While being a principal brings a different set of challenges than being a P.E. teacher, Gruenhagen is excited to embrace them.
As P.E. teacher, Gruenhagen knew every student’s name, which at the time was over 600 students. Now Medary is only kindergarten through third grade, which means Gruenhagen only needs to learn 350 new names.
“While I say it’s a challenge (to learn all the new names), it’s a fun and exciting challenge to get to know each student on a name by name, personal basis,” Gruenhagen said.
Gruenhagen gains inspiration from first-grade teacher Alec Johnson, who, according to Gruenhagen, knows “just about every single name in the building.”
“That’s very meaningful to students,” Gruenhagen said. “I place that own goal on my shoulders to get to know every student, and I encourage other staff members to do the same.”
Outside of the school
Gruenhagen is also the head cross-country coach for Brookings High School, which keeps him very busy during the fall. He’s not busy enough to neglect his own running, however, as Gruenhagen almost always gets in 5 to 7 miles every morning before school. He is also working on a separate project – he is trying to run on every street in Brookings.
“I’m 80 percent done right now,” Gruenhagen said. “It’s on the back burner as of now.”
Outside of work and running, Gruenhagen enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and camping with his family and dog, Bokeh. Gruenhagen and his wife, Lauren, have two sons, Otto and Gus.
Gruenhagen is currently preparing for the upcoming school year – his first full year as principal of Medary.
Each upcoming school year is a mix of excitement and nerves, but with the difficulty of the previous year, Gruenhagen is especially excited to turn the page.
“I think throughout the pandemic we faced a lot of challenges, but everyone involved realized we can still provide a positive atmosphere and a quality education to everyone who walks through our doors no matter what building they are at,” Gruenhagen said. “I think it’s pretty impressive that we made it an entire school year without having to shut any buildings down or shut down as a district.”
“There was a lot of support from our community in how we were handling things, and I’m excited to bring our students back and I think they’ll be excited to come back.”
Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]