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Educator has big family, military background



ABOUT ZIRNGIBL Joseph Zirngibl, the new administrator/principal of the Reek School District, has a resume as big as his family. - He holds bachelor's degrees in secondary and elementary education from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; a master's of education-professional development with an emphasis in middle-level development from UW-Eau Claire; and a master's of science in education-education administration from UW-Superior. - Has certification in business management and school district superintendency. - He and his wife, Valerie Rust, have 13 children. Joseph has two from a previous marriage, as does Valerie. But the remaining nine children are adopted. Five of them are from Brazil, two from Russia and two from Wisconsin. "We got into adoption because we felt there was a need to parent children who needed not just parents, but guidance," Joseph said. - Was a foster parent for seven years. - He has been involved in little league, youth basketball, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and middle school basketball. "I enjoy hunting, fishing and golfing," Joseph said.
July 13, 2011 | 08:25 AM
Linn — It takes about 6 ½ hours to drive north from the Geneva Lake area to Siren, but Joseph Zirngibl said he has noticed some similarities between the communities.

"Siren is a big area for resorts and lakefront property," Zirngibl said from behind the neatly cleaned desk in the Reek School principal/district administrator's office. "Up there, I lived within 5 miles of five lakes. On Fridays, we had an influx of people out of the Twin Cities into Siren. So, whenever you drive anyplace, you always plan to make right turns because you'll never get anywhere in all the traffic."

Zirngibl became Reek's new principal/administrator July 1, but he was a principal in the Siren School District for seven years. At Reek, he's taking over the job formerly held by Lillian Henderson, who became the district administrator in Sharon. Zirngibl, 56, has his work cut out for him.

Now, this father of 13 children has to absorb all there is to know about a new school and a new community.

"I've never lived in this part of the state," he said. "Both my wife and I are excited to be here. Hopefully, my children will grow to like it, too."

Then there's the dark cloud looming over the heads of all state public school officials. How can you meet increasingly tougher educational standards during a financial crisis? Or, in Zirngibl's own words, "try to do more with less."

He said by 2014, students have to score in the top two categories in all national academic tests. At the same time, Zirngibl is coming into Reek on the heels of a failed referendum to fix structural problems at the school, including a crumbling brick façade, roof and drainage issues and deteriorating windows.

"The needs of the building haven't gone away," he said. "We need to bring it up to safety standards."

Last month, when discussing her retirement, Henderson said the first year for a new principal or administrator is going to be the toughest. In Zirngibl's case, it may be a case of running the gauntlet.

But he doesn't seem worried. Zirngibl said there were several reasons why he applied for this job, including the aspect of taking a step up in his career while still being able to do what he loves most — working with kids.

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"The best way to describe it is, if you're working with a student who's struggling to understand something and then, when you see that light bulb go on, that's the reward," he said. "I get my energy from seeing these children succeed. That keeps me going."

Army prison?

The road Zirngibl took to reach this point in his life isn't one typically traveled by most people of education.

Born and raised in Medford, "home of the original Tombstone Pizza," he said, Zirngibl graduated from high school and spent two years in the U.S. Army, using the G.I. Bill to help fund college. He was a correctional specialist at a facility in Fort Campbell, Ky.

Basically, this meant he had the duties of a prison clerk and guard, primarily responsible for processing incoming and outgoing prisoners.

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"(It was) a holding facility for pretrial prisoners of the Army," Zirngibl said.

Sixteen cells, with 12 to 16 prisoners to a cell, meant almost up to 200 prisoners at one time for Zirngibl and his fellow correctional specialists to monitor.

"You had to deal with them psychologically, so that they do what they need to do," he said. "You don't have power there as a guard. You have to use your intelligence in there to get prisoners to do the right thing."

Controlling the population meant maintaining a "strong presence," Zirngibl said — not so much with a nightstick, but by providing prisoners with information and even a friendly ear.

"I'd spend time listening to the prisoners, so I'd know what their concerns were (and) discuss with them what would be the possible outcomes of their trials and give them the tools they'd need to deal with their confinement," he said.

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These were prisoners who were facing a variety of charges, from being AWOL for a few days to being accused of murder.

"Most of them were in for drug offenses," Zirngibl said.

Not always was it enough to just talk to the prisoners. He said one of them attacked a guard, stabbing him twice with a scissors before he was subdued.

Aside from that, how easy is it to talk to someone facing charges you might find a moral objection to, such as murder?

"We never knew exactly what their cases were," Zirngibl said. "The charges were in their paperwork, but we never dug into their files that deep."

Although the experience helped pay for college, he said there is a similarity between correctional specialist and public school teacher.

"You try to build relationships between the prisoners to get them to make good decisions, same as you'd do with students," Zirngibl said.

Explosive politician vs. the economy

He went to college at the University of Wisconsin and wasn't able to find a teaching job right away. Instead, during and in between degrees, he racked up 14 years of retail experience.

Zirngibl said he majored in secondary education with an emphasis on chemistry and political science.

"It's kind of an odd combination," he said. "When people ask me about it, I say I turned myself into an explosive politician."

Then, he re-entered the UW system for an elementary education master's degree at Eau Claire.

"Right after graduation, I got a job as an elementary school teacher with the New Auburn School District, about 25 miles north of Chippewa Falls.

Seven years ago, he became a principal in the Siren district.

"The focus changes from working directly with the kids to working directly with the teachers who work with kids," Zirngibl said. "(But) I still worked a lot with the students when I was principal."

A crucial factor in the story of what brought him to Reek is the state budget crisis. According to Zirngibl, the Siren district is located in Burnett County, which has the highest poverty rate in Wisconsin according to the last census.

"High property values for lake property, but a lot of the property away from the lakes were substandard housing, or housing on reservation land," he said. It is an area with a great divide between classes. With all this, the Siren School District budget dropped drastically. There were two principal positions within the district, and both principals received layoff notices in January.

Zirngibl was one of them.

"I could have been cut, but I was able to find this job before they had to make that decision," he said.

But out of necessity brought Zirngibl an opportunity to continue to do what he loves and improve his career.

"Reek gave me the ability to move into a district administrator position and maintain contact with students," he said. "I'll be doing what I love while taking a step up."

As for the job, Zirngibl said he will focus on finding ways to help Reek students learn. He said his priorities will be to meet the state and federally mandated changes to education.

"These include the state adoption of the new Common Core standards, programs to meet the needs of the students such as Response to Intervention and Positive Behavior interventions and Supports, mandated reductions in education funding due to the Budget Repair Bill and the new state budget," Zirngibl said. "It will be a challenge to meet the new mandates with less funding. I plan to work closely with the School Board, the teachers and staff and the community to meet these challenges."

With all this, he said he's still looking forward to getting to know the staff, students and parents of his new district.

Especially the students.

"I really love working with the kids," Zirngibl said. "I get a lot of energy from the kids themselves and I've got a drive to help them be successful."

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