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Get to know Westside's new principal

<i>Phil Pfuehler photo</i> Rita Humbert brings three decades' worth of teaching and administrative experience as she quickly assumes the role of Westside Elementary School acting principal. She was born and raised in Altoona.

There was very little homework preparation before Rita Humbert became acting principal at Westside Elementary School. Because of Mike Ballard's resignation in mid-August, the vacancy appeared weeks before the start of the 2010-11 school year.

The 52-year-old Humbert won't deny she has lots to learn about her new school and community, but she's undaunted.

Credit a wealth of experience for that confidence -- 30 years in the educational field, including 19 in the Prescott School District as an elementary school teacher, gifted and talented coordinator, and curriculum and staff development coordinator, plus the last 11 years as principal of the preK-grade 8 St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Hastings, Minn.

Humbert adds that what she's seen at Westside will make her transition easier.

"The staff here seems competent, experienced and can take care of so many things. They are so darn good," she said. "I've also noticed that there is a great sense of community with the families of this school and a commitment to children's education. Parents are heavily involved in the school, they live it, and that's an integral part of how well the kids will do."

Humbert said that tight-knit family bonds were the same at the Catholic school in Hastings where she was principal.

Other first impressions of Westside?

"Those leaning lights in the parking lot," Humbert says, shaking her head. "I've never seen anything like them. Will they stay upright?"

She also said the school's circular design and a main office that's a fair distance from the entrance is unusual.

Humbert said that being a "fresh face" has advantages.

"As the new person, I don't have a history," she said. "That can be good. I don't know all the politics that have gone on. Everything for me is on equal ground."

The "acting" in Humbert's title means she'll have to reapply for the principal's job in winter and beat out other applicants if she wants to continue. Her goal is to be Westside's permanent principal.

For now Humbert expects to do "a lot of listening and watching" as her learning curve unfolds.

She's also used to living only four blocks from school. That meant she could walk, but it created a proprietary sense that dragged her back and forth to her job at odd hours and weekends to handle problems.

"From where I live in Hastings, it's 25 minutes to the door at Westside," Humbert said of her new commute.

Rita and her husband Mick have lived in Hastings for 26 years. They're empty nesters except for a pet dog.

The Humberts' two daughters are ages 25 and 22. The older one is an occupational therapist; the younger is going to UW-Milwaukee for a master's in speech and language.

Mick is a dentist who retired from the profession due to back problems. He's also the deacon of the Catholic Church in Roseville, Minn., and a coordinator for the Just Friends program, part of Hasting's Family Services.

Bad back and all, Mick remains very active. In 2008, on a recumbent bicycle, he pedaled across the United States, from Seattle to Washington, D.C. He chronicled that trip in a new, 112-page book, "Riding the White Line: Pedestrian Crossings."

Rita herself stays active. She loves to golf, walk, travel and she plays slow-pitch softball in a St. Paul women's league. She also coached at the Prescott high school and middle school, including in basketball, volleyball and girls' softball.

Humbert said one reason for leaving as principal at the Hastings Catholic school was because of getting pulled in too many directions.

"In that role, you are the captain of every ship -- from special education, curriculum and technology to enrollment, marketing and fundraising," she said. "In this district, there are specialists to lead in those areas. That allows me, as principal of Westside, to be more focused."

Read more about Humbert in the Sept. 2 print edition of the River Falls Journal.