Montana man chosen schools superintendent

Sean C. Morgan

The Sweet Home School Board hired a Montana educator, Tom Yahraes, as its new superintendent Monday evening.

Yahraes, 48, is CEO of Big Sky Discovery Academy in Big Sky, Mont. He will succeed Keith Winslow on July 1.

“It was a good process, and the committee was unanimous,” said Board Chairman Mike Reynolds.

The board voted 8-0 to hire Yahraes.

Present and voting yes were Jason Van Eck, Jenny Daniels, Chanz Keeney, Jason Redick, Reynolds, Carol Babcock, Debra Brown and Nick Augsburger. Angela Clegg was absent.

The board agreed to a three-year contract, paying $115,000 in salary during the first year, with four weeks of vacation and the same benefits package as other administrators.

Yahraes comes to Sweet Home by way of a career that routed through Montana,

Oregon, Alaska and back to Montana.

He grew up in northern Minnesota, in the middle of Chippewa National Forest, where his father was an outdoor educator. They lived at an outdoor education camp, while his father taught college students, adults and SWAT members.

He attended high school in Bemidji, Minn., famous as the legendary home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

“I grew up there,” Yahraes said. “I played all sports – fall, winter and spring.”

In northern Minnesota, people do two things, hockey or Nordic skiing, he said. He chose skiing, and competed in the Junior Olympics in 1984.

He worked in timber-type jobs, like trimming trees, during the summer, he said. After high school, he wanted to take a break and pursue whatever interesting challenges and experiences he could. So he joined the U.S. Army and served in Germany from 1986 to 1989, leaving Germany just months prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He served on the border guard as a member of the ready reaction force, Yahraes said. His job was to observe, protect and assist fleeing East Germans. On high alert, his unit was stationed in the Fulda Gap around Bad Hersfeld. The Fulda Gap was where western forces anticipated a potential Soviet-bloc invasion.

“I wanted the life experience and served the country,” Yahraes said. He was able to visit Europe, and “I was able to get the GI Bill.”

Returning to the United States, he spent eight years in the reserves and used the GI Bill to attend college, where he gradually gravitated toward education.

He started out majoring in literature and physical education, Yahraes said. He took education classes alongside his major. In education, he found “it was a thrill to help empower young adults and children to chase their dreams.”

He took a break for a couple of years and moved to Montana, where family lived and went to work at a service station, changing tires and servicing ranch tractors.

He completed his bachelor’s degree in English in 1996 at the University of Montana in Missoula. He taught language arts at Hellgate Middle School in Missoula and then at Stevensville (Mont.) High School from 1996 to 1997 before leaving Montana for the Alaskan Bush, where he taught at Anthony Andrew High School, part of the Bering Strait School District, in St. Michael on the west coast of Alaska.

At the time, the town had a population of 300, mostly Eskimo. The town ran on three generators. Homes had no plumbing, and the population got around on snowmobiles and out of town by plane.

“It was a really neat experience,” Yahraes said. “I got to learn the challenges and pleasure of remote bush Alaska life.”

The school was the absolute structural center of the community, he said. It hosted everything from community potlucks and ball games to funerals and weddings.

It was mostly subsistence living, he said. The people lived off the land.

“Personally, it was really neat to live off the land for three years, to learn from the elders,” Yahraes said. Most teachers don’t remain there long. It was cold and remote. Sometimes, the community wasn’t too friendly to newcomers, particularly if they didn’t participate in the community.

With four staff members, he was the entire PE department and the entire language arts department.

Eventually, he was ready to do something different and started applying for new jobs. His search landed him at Mountain View High School in Bend in 2000, a stark contrast to where he had been.

At the time, the school had an affluent demographic, Yahraes said. While there, he was named Teacher of the Year, and he completed his master’s degree in education administration at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2005.

He went to work at Redmond High School as dean of students in 2006 and became assistant principal in 2008.

“At that point, Redmond High School was really growing,” Yahraes said. Enrollment grew from 1,900 to 2,200 while he was there. The school was eventually split, with about half its students moving to a brand new campus, Ridgeview.

Redmond High was designed for about 750 students, and Yahraes worked with the community to help pass a bond to construct the new high school.

He left Redmond High School in 2010 at the request of the superintendent.

“He asked me to be principal at Terrabonne Community School,” Yahraes said. “Terrabonne was going through some challenges with its (annual yearly progress), and we turned that school around.”

Every morning, the students and staff would meet, he said, and they would talk about goals for the day, in academics and other matters.

“It was a ‘we’ effort,” Yahraes said. “I went in and listened. I learned. I tried to figure out what was there before.”

He wanted to know what the staff did there, and what the people in the school wanted it to be, he said. In two years, it became the highest-performing school in the district.

“The staff was great,” he said. “The community was great. We just needed to come together and work together as one solid team.”

With family in Montana, Yahraes returned there in 2014 to work in Big Sky, a resort town, as assistant superintendent.

“That was a great experience,” he said. “I was fortunate. A family in town here wanted to develop a new school. They asked me to be the CEO and put everything together.”

That school opened in 2014. He spent this school year developing the staff and instruction there.

“Now I’m coming home,” Yahraes said. “That’s where my wife’s family is at, Central Oregon. I have a lot of roots there as well.”

And he is looking forward to making Sweet Home his home.

He plans to buy a home in Sweet Home and fully engage and participate, to be a part of the community.

“I just love the physical environment of Sweet Home and being right there at the foothills of the mountains,” Yahraes said. “I saw the position posted in the fall. I’ve been through Sweet Home a number of times, and I liked the town.”

He took the opportunity to visit during the Thanksgiving holiday, he said. He met some local residents and ate lunch at the high school.

He toured the town, he said. “I really liked what I saw. I’m just honored to be selected.”

The selection process was rigorous, he said, and that’s one of the reasons he accepted the post.

“When I looked at and reviewed what Sweet Home has going on, I saw a community that’s passionate and actively supportive there,” Yahraes said. “Parents actively participate and contribute.”

He talked to students, parents and teachers, who are passionate about their students, he said. The district has wisely managed programs and is positioned to grow and in all areas.

When he arrives “the first thing I need to do is I need to bring people together,” he said. “I need to listen. I need to learn.”

He said he plans to have as many conversations as he can with parents, teachers, students, staff and stakeholders in the community, the taxpayers, adding that he needs to ask where they want to see Sweet Home five years from now.

“From there, I want to build action plans to meet those goals,” Yahraes said. The importance of a five-year strategic plan is what he heard from the School Board and staff.

Just as important as building the plan is setting ways to measure it concretely to determine when the district successfully meets its goals.

As a leader, Yahraes said, “I try to lead by example, work hard, play hard.”

While it’s important to give 100 percent at the job, he said, it’s also important to give 100 percent when at home with the family, recreation and hobbies.

“We want students prepared to be healthy, thinking, thriving, contributing citizens locally and globally,” he said in his resume. “As a team, we balance work, family and play – work hard, play hard – wasting no time to get to each.”

After 20 years, he still enjoys his work.

“It’s your highest calling, to help our future leaders,” he said. “There’s no bigger thrill than empowering a child or young adult to chase what they want to chase and be able to pursue the American dream.”

Yahraes is married to Brenda Yahraes. They have a 4-year-old son, Thorsen. Brenda Yahraes has been in education for more than 20 years and has worked as an administrator at the high school level as an international baccalaureate principal. She is working on a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and spending time at home being a mom.

The district will host an open house in April during Montana’s spring break to allow the community to meet Yahraes.