John Ernst’s belief in the philosophy of management by wandering around was affirmed Thursday when the Rolling Ridge Elementary School principal was named the National Distinguished Principal of the Year by the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
On any given weekday morning, Ernst can be found greeting Rolling Ridge students by name as they enter the building. Throughout each day he visits classrooms, talks to students in the lunchroom and on the playground and chats with faculty members. He calls it taking the pulse of the school.
“When John came into this building three years ago, it was a breath of fresh air,” said math specialist teacher Katie Horner, who wrote a letter recommending Ernst for the honor. “I have never seen a principal who was so student-oriented. It’s just his way of getting to know the kids’ names and investing in them, knowing their individual strengths and weaknesses. Any decision we make as a staff supports what’s best for the students. He makes it amazing for the staff, too. It’s an inviting, relaxing atmosphere. We can count on one another.”
Horner confirmed Ernst’s wandering ways, too.
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“I go to his office to find him, and he’s not there,” she said with a laugh. “Then I have to go through the building to track him down.”
All of Rolling Ridge’s nearly 500 students gathered Thursday morning in the gymnasium for an assembly whose purpose was unknown to them and even to Ernst until he was announced as the award winner.
Jeff White, a principal from Osawatomie and the Kansas representative for National Association of Elementary School Principals, got a cheer when he asked the students, “Do you guys have an excellent principal here?”
He explained that Ernst and his wife would receive a trip to Washington, D.C., in October, along with his peers from each state, to attend a black-tie recognition dinner.
Kim Mitchell of Bonner Springs, the 2015 honoree from Kansas, talked about what it was like “to be treated like a rock star” in the nation’s capital.
“In 30 years in education,” she said, “it was a first time I thought ‘Maybe what I do really is important to people.’ ”
Olathe Public Schools board President Rick Schier called Ernst a hero.
“Maybe he can’t jump over the building or bend steel bars with his hands, but he probably has X-ray vision to see into classrooms and super hearing to listen to conversations and make sure everything is going smoothly,” Schier said. “Like police and firemen, and also like teachers, principals are heroes because they put others before themselves.”
Ernst said he was humbled by the recognition.
“I couldn’t have done it without the support of district personnel and the great students and especially the teachers,” he said. “It’s an award not just for me but for the entire staff and anybody who has ever worked with me.”
He also thanked his parents, who were in attendance, noting that they were 40-year educators who put him on the path to achieve such a recognition.
“I always wanted to be in education,” Ernst said. “Seeing my parents and their interaction with kids … and how they made them happy. I enjoy the little kids. Every day is a new adventure.”