At the conclusion of her first meeting as principal of Crooked Lake Elementary School, Cheryl Kortuem told her staff that family always comes first, according to second-grade teacher Maureen Ledin.
Kortuem, 64, is following through with this pledge and retiring while she still has the ability to be a leader and teacher, but she wants to have time to visit her new granddaughter in Florida after she is born in July. She has seven other grandchildren, but the rest are in Northfield or Prior Lake so those trips have been easier to pull off.
Kortuem has been Crooked Lake Elementary’s principal for 10 years, but had a connection with the school well before then. Her oldest son Gabe was there from kindergarten through third grade and Nate was in kindergarten and first grade at this school. She was a co-chairperson of the school’s parent-teacher organization.
Gabe, Nate and her two youngest sons Tommy and Jesse eventually went to Andover Elementary School when it opened in 1988.
“It was a very hard decision,” she said about retiring. “Crooked Lake has a special place in my heart…When I was offered the principal job it was like coming back home.”
Kortuem started working for the Anoka-Hennepin School District in 1986. She started out as a substitute classroom and physical education teacher in elementary schools and then was head teacher in the School Readiness Program for preschoolers. Working with three- to five-year-old kids taught her a lot about child development.
She was briefly a substitute teacher in the St. Francis School District and at one child care center in Blaine.
She worked at Andover Elementary from 1994 to 2002, first as a fourth-grade teacher for five years and then as administrative intern and dean of students. During the 2002-03 school year she was dean of students at Ramsey Elementary School for one semester and then a talent development teacher at Andover Elementary School for the second semester.
Kortuem became Crooked Lake’s third principal in its history in the fall of 2003, following in the footsteps of Wally Johnson and Alan Vokaty.
Ledin has taught at the school for about 25 years and worked for all three principals. She said it is out of a school community’s control when it loses a principal, but it says a lot about Crooked Lake and its families when it has only had three people leading the school since it opened in 1968.
Ledin credited Kortuem for her leadership this past decade in academics and developing relationships.
Kortuem has an open door policy to her office, makes it to most after school events and she stresses collaboration and setting goals, she said.
“My job is just as important as a classroom teacher, or a building custodian, or a child nutrition worker or an A-plus (Adventures Plus) worker or clerical,” Kortuem said. “If one person is not doing their job, the school does not run as smoothly as it could.”
She knows every child’s name and remembers those who came back to visit, Ledin said.
This happens a lot this time of year as alumni about to receive their high school diploma return to reminisce, Kortuem said.
“She was the perfect fit for what we have here,” Ledin said.
Family role models are why Kortuem is in the profession she is in. Her maternal grandparents, many aunts and uncles on her mother’s side and first cousins were educators. Two uncles ended up being principals, one for elementary and the other for secondary. Her maternal grandfather was also a high school principal.
“Education has always been very important in our family,” Kortuem said. “I loved working with kids when I was younger.”
Her first experience watching over younger kids was as a babysitter in the small town of New Richland that she grew up in. She later taught swimming lessons.
After being one of 52 graduates in her high school class and then receiving her bachelor’s degree in physical education and health from Mankato State University, she started teaching health and physical education at Mankato’s only high school in 1972. One year later, she moved to the community’s brand new second high school — Mankato East — where she taught physical education and coached girls’ track, swimming, cheerleading and dance.
Her husband’s job transfer brought the family to Andover in 1978. She was at home for a few years before she began substitute teaching in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
Education and school atmosphere has certainly changed since then. The focus is more on student work and assessing test performance between different classrooms. Teachers talk more about techniques that improved their students’ test scores.
“Standards are important and it makes everyone accountable and puts everyone on an even playing field because we’re really grading kids on what they can and cannot do,” Kortuem said.
The four critical questions she wants teachers to answer are:
• What should students need to know and be able to do?
• How will we know if students have learned it?
• How will we respond when students don’t learn?
• How will we respond when students come to us already knowing the essential learnings?
Due to school shootings in the United States, Crooked Lake must do five practice lockdowns a year. Parents used to be able to freely walk into school to have lunch with their kids, but are now asked to call ahead and every visitor must sign in and out. Starting this fall, the receptionist must buzz someone in before they can even enter the school and all employees must wear a photo ID.
Kortuem remembers doing civil defense drills as a child and early in her teaching career when Americans were worried about nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Tornado and fire drills have been going on for decades, so there has always been some disaster students had to prepare for.
The family teaching continue continues. Gabe and his wife are both teachers. Tommy’s wife is a guidance counselor. Nate’s wife has an elementary education degree, but is now a professional triathlete. Nate is coaching her and other elite triathletes.
When she is not spending time with her grandchildren, Kortuem will still be teaching. Right now, she teaches an educational leadership class at Concordia University and she supervises student teachers at the University of Minnesota-Morris. She also plans to attend more Minnesota Twins games and ride her bike.
Kortuem earned a master’s degree in elementary education at the University of Minnesota. She completed her administrative licensing program at Saint Mary’s University.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]