Originally from North Dakota, Wohlman arrived in the Gunnison Valley more than two decades ago in pursuit of an education degree.
“I was drawn to education because it provides an opportunity to help people every day,” Wohlman said. “I had a handful of teachers and professors that opened my eyes to new perspectives, and this changed my life. I wanted to provide this experience in others’ lives.”
After graduating from Western in spring 1996, Wohlman taught art at a school in Minnesota for three years, and then moved to inner-city Las Vegas, where he taught a variety of subjects in sixth through 12th grades.
“My decision to pursue a career in administration was a direct result of the time I spent teaching in Las Vegas, ”Wohlman said. “I worked with a group of amazing teachers and became increasingly frustrated watching good, talented people go to waste because of bad administration.”
Wohlman said that one day, he simply had enough of listening to teachers complain and children’s education being compromised because staff was receiving such little support from above. He enrolled in a master’s program.
After spending a year as an assistant principal, Wohlman landed his current job as principal of the Kalskag schools. He has spent the past five years at Kalskag, putting into practice his commitment to improve administration.
Kalskag is a remote community in the bush of southwestern Alaska, only accessible by small plane and boat. The community is 98 percent native, primarily Yupik Eskimo.
When Wohlman arrived in Kalskag, the schools were in desperate need of help. “Test scores were in the teens and twenties in mathematics and the language arts ... and the community had a solid apathy toward education,” he wrote in his 2012 National Principal of the Year Essay. “School improvement needed to start somewhere, and it started with me.”
The Kalskag school district consists of three schools separated by three miles of gravel roads. Wohlman oversees 30 staff members and assists with everything from bus driving to food service, as need arises.
So how has Wohlman transformed these struggling schools, thus earning the honor of Principal of the Year?
The answer is two-fold.
First, through remarkable dedication to developing a curriculum that fits the needs of the students in the Kalskag community, according to Wohlman. He consistently upholds his pledge to visit every classroom every day so as to be connected to the real needs of his students and staff.
The second key to Wohlman’s success is his understanding that to accomplish his goal of improved education, he must work from the inside out.
“A personal connection is needed here to do anything and everything. I spent a lot of time wiping tears away long, long before getting to math,” Wohlman explained. “A lot of politics, counseling and psychology goes into teaching children that do not have generations of education. The staff must know the student for any curriculum to be effective.”
“I present education and the earning of a diploma as a ticket to the world not saying ‘no’ to you,” Wohlman continued. “My goal is for my students to have one so that they get to choose what to do with their lives.”
During his five years as principal, Wohlman has drastically improved not only the standard of education at Kalskag schools, but the quality of learning among his students and the community.
“Our improvement in test scores overall ... is at a level I would put against any group of schools in the nation,” according to Wohlman. “My middle schoolers have developed a love for reading and ... my high school students now boast about eligibility.”
His is truly a district transformed.
“I remember some great education teachers from my time at Western. They were both firm and helpful and I attribute my no-nonsense approach to education to that foundation,” Wohlman said. “What I love most about being in education is getting to watch students learn even when they don’t realize they are learning.”