Albert Lea Area Schools prepares to say goodbye to Lakeview, Hawthorne principals

Published 6:11 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2023

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Even at a young age, some people know what they want to do in life.

Such was the case for Nick Sofio, the Lakeview Elementary School principal, who is getting ready to leave Albert Lea Area Schools following the end of the school year.

“My dad was a teacher at the high school level, so I would oftentimes spend time with him around students,” he said. “He was a coach also, and so I was able to just kind of see the connections that he would build with kids.”

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And through high school and college, he started to believe helping others played a critical role in where they would end up in life. From there, he knew elementary education was going to be his specialty.

Serving a school administration role, however, was not something he considered.

But while he was working at a charter school in the Twin Cities, he served on the school board. And that was an experience that allowed him to observe different environments, and through the experience he connected with different people who inspired him to consider working in administration.

“The more I participated, the more big-level conversations in a building-wide situation, the more it just kind of appealed to me … being an administrator can help me impact kids maybe three or more times [than impacting a classroom].”

Sofio, who hadn’t had any connections to the district, was working as an instructional coach in the Twin Cities when he was hired as principal at Halverson Elementary School, a position he held for two years before moving to Lakeview. And he thought moving to Lakeview would allow him to sharpen his skills at a slightly bigger building that served more students at the time.

He has also enjoyed the different school events, including walkathons, assemblies and concerts.

Sofio was proud of the work his team has done to make Lakeview a safe place to learn.

But his proudest accomplishment was his team’s work with professional learning communities to meet student needs. That work has also led to conversations centered around working with students as whole people.

“What might be going on in their life —social, emotional lives — that we might be ignoring or ignorant of just through no fault of our own and how does that help us work to provide them with a great instructional environment,” he said.

On the other hand, he regretted not being able to see the work of the Marzano High Reliability Schools process through.

“We’re just kind of in the middle of that second part of it, which is highly effective teaching in every classroom,” he said. “I’m really sad that I won’t be able to see that get all tied-up and buttoned-up together.”

At the same time, he admitted a lot of things come up in a school year that he wasn’t expecting, and he wished he knew more about how big the community of learners was.

“I can say that I’ve grown a lot through my eight years here at Lakeview,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a staff that is extremely dedicated — teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, custodians, food service — that’s just really dedicated to providing the best experience for our kids each and every day.”

Moving forward, he felt the communications skills he’s developed — whether with staff, students, community members or families — will help him. He also feels more confident in his decision-making abilities.

As he prepares to depart, he appreciates the work of teachers, parents and the support he has received over the last decade in Albert Lea.

“Honored, blessed, it’s a great community to be at,” he said.

Moving forward, Sofio and his wife plan to move to the Twin Cities, where he plans to look for a job as a principal.

Teresa Howland, administrative assistant to Sofio, has worked with him for over eight years.

“He’s a very professional person,” she said. “He’s very kind.”

She said Sofio has taught her the value of patience.

“I’m going to miss him,” she said. “He’s been a very big part of my life at Lakeview. It feels like a little brother is moving away and I’m never going to see him again.”

School counselor Kari Rasmussen has been working with Sofio for five years.

She said Sofio worked hard to ensure students, families, teachers and staff felt welcomed and heard.

“He’s been a great person for me to work with and connect with as I try to do my job,” she said. “I’ve always really appreciated the support that I’ve felt from him, and I’ve heard a lot of positive things from others about the support as well.”

Sofio isn’t the only one leaving, as John Mahal will leave following five years as principal at Hawthorne Elementary School at the end of the school year.

Like Sofio, Mahal came from a family of educators.

“I have lots of aunts, my grandma was a teacher, so it was always kind of there,” he said.

But it wasn’t until an opportunity to shadow his high school teacher, who happened to be his basketball coach, that he realized how much he enjoyed it.

While teaching, he started to gravitate toward the work of administrators, and he especially liked the idea of helping to support a building in a larger capacity. So he decided to give it a go.

Mahal didn’t have any connections within the district before arriving from his role as an assistant principal in Shakopee.

“I saw the posting, I knew about Albert Lea because I taught in Northfield, so I knew that they were in [the Big 9] Conference, as I had been here before as a coach,” he said.

So he decided to apply.

Mahal’s proudest accomplishment was seeing Hawthorne receive a School of Excellence award last Friday, ensuring the staff had a framework to make decisions advantageous to teachers that would support students’ academic, social and emotional growth.

To be eligible for the award, the school needed to show research-based programming through a number of metrics, including leadership, having a vision, showing student learning, providing a culture of adult learning, data and decision-making and offering community engagement.

“We look at all these different areas and what … we already have in place in terms of our systems, where’s our areas for growth and showing that we have all these systems in place,” he said. “Once we fill out all the paperwork, get things submitted to the [Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association] office.”

He was also happy to see the school become Level One certified among High Reliability Schools.

Mahal wished he could see the school through Level Two certification.

The office is also being remodeled to ensure Hawthorne has more secure entrances, something he wants to return to see.

And while he won’t be there, he’s hopeful the building will be Level Two certified next year.

The experience has taught him that even being an assistant principal hasn’t fully prepared him for the role and having conversations with teachers, students and families.

“The day-to-day work has been a learning experience overall,” he said. “Just all the details that go into this position. I’m the type of leader where I’m a servant leader, I want to do everything I can to make everybody better within their role. It looks different for everybody.”

It has also shown him he could lead, communicate and run a building to support a district’s vision.

He described his experience as Hawthorne as “tremendous” and said he was fortunate to work with the staff, families and students there.

“Thank you for the opportunity to serve and be a part of this school, this district, this community,” he said. “Even though I won’t necessarily be here on a daily basis I’m always going to keep tabs on what’s going on cause I’m invested, I want to see this place be successful and I know the foundation is there for that to really, hopefully take off.”

He also thanked parents for entrusting the school with their child’s education.

Mahal is leaving to take over the role of activities director within the Northfield Public School District, where he’s a resident along with his family.

“My kids are in high school, and they were kind of the ones that really … said, “Dad, you’d be great at that job, we’d love to have you around more, try to get it,’” he said.

Prior to becoming an assistant principal at Sweeney Elementary School, Mahal taught special education and coached girl’s soccer and track and field at Northfield. He also coached men’s basketball at St. Olaf College for 16 years.

Darci Rasmussen, administrative assistant at Hawthorne, has worked with Mahal since he took over. She described her experience working with him as “wonderful.”

“He treats everybody with respect and he respects your job, includes you in on conversations,” she said. “He will be greatly missed.”

Rasmussen said Mahal taught her to slow down and listen more.

“He’ll be greatly missed by the students and staff, and we wish him the best of luck,” she said.

Anne Sternhagen, health clerk at Hawthorne, has worked with Mahal for two years and said he would be missed.

“He is very friendly, works well with everybody, he is easy to talk to, get along with, makes work fun,” she said.