Luft brings creative knack for collaboration to YME

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When Yellow Medicine East High School kicks off its new school year in a little over two weeks it will do so with a new high school principal whose life’s passion and preparation could not be better suited to bring about positive outcomes that cater to school and community needs.
Since his hire early this summer, High School Principal Ryan Luft has been busy relocating his wife, Rachel, three girls and a son into town while simultaneously laying the groundwork for his first year at the school’s helm. In many ways the move will serve as a homecoming for Luft, whose first teaching experience came as a student-teacher at the former YME Junior High in  Clarkfield while in the midst of receiving  his teaching license in Secondary Social Studies and Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Since those notable beginnings, the 38-year-old Luft has gained a wide-breadth of experience as a teacher and coach, while going on to earn an additional Master’s Degree in K-12 Education at St Mary’s University in the Twin Cities as well as a Superintendent License through Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Luft’s first full-time teaching assignment came as a Social Studies teacher at Marshall High School, where he was also assistant basketball, football and track coach. After two years, he moved on to Kerkhoven, Murdock and Sunburg (KMS). There, he continued to teach Social Studies, but moved up in the ranks as a head basketball coach.
Luft said that he wanted the opportunity to lead his own program, and it is worth noting that  during his tenure he led the KMS squad to its first Conference Championship in the same period that the school won the Class A State Academic Championship. Prior to that, the school had only two winning basketball seasons in 44 years.
“It was pretty great to compete on the field and also be successful in the classroom,” he said.

Declining enrollment
Following four years at KMS Luft made the leap in to the administrative realm at Southland Public Schools, which consisted of an association of six small towns – the largest, a population of 800 – offering a K-12 curriculum.
Here, Luft’s knack for creative partnerships  revealed itself as he helped offset maladies revolving around declining enrollment by writing a $1.2 million Rural Utility Service grants that brought high-definition internet television to a consortium of 23 schools, which were subsequently able to share human resources. These actions allowed the schools to make available over 60+ college level courses, double the number of electives offered, and all while reducing the budget some $50,000.
Some would call it hard work, others an impressive collaboration of existing resources and technology, though Luft is more inclined to say it is simply a right.
“Just because we were small didn’t mean we didn’t have the right to have the same education and opportunities as everybody else in Minnesota,” he said.

College re-connect
Luft’s next move brought him to the Staples-Motley, where his job with a school district, roughly the size of Yellow Medicine East, saw him take on more focused leadership, serving as principal of grades 9-12. Like Granite Falls, the area was also home to a vocational school, Central Lakes College.
He said that a disconnect had formed between the community, high school and college. Once again, Luft put his collaborative prowess to work, bringing together the local Chamber of Commerce, EDA and businesses to help facilitate mentor programs with work places involved in everything from fluid-power and machining to law enforcement and agriculture. This way students were able to see how the concepts they were learning in school would be integral once they entered real-world jobs at a later day.
Luft even helped institute a Robotics program at the high school in collaboration with CLC Robotics Program, and saw to it to provide mutually beneficial opportunities where first and second year vocational attendees were able to educate high school students.
“It was really an impactful thing to have our kids exposed to college students, who were able to say this is what I do and this is what you can expect,” he said. “It was a really cool way to connect the school, college and industry.”

This is the spot
After a three year stint with Staples-Motley, Luft spent a year in Foley before departing the post in order to fill the vacancy at YME. Here, he said, was a convergence of what he was looking for both professionally and personally, particularly in regard to the community and its proximity to family.
“This is the spot. Absolutely,” he said. “We’re hoping to stay here a long time.”
Luft said Granite Falls is an equidistant point between his own parents, who are located near  Lake Shetek near Currie, and his wife’s, who reside on a family farm outside of Holloway. In addition he has a sister-in-law in Montevideo and Atwater and a brother-in-law Benson.
“We wanted our kids to be around their grandparents, uncles and aunts,” he said. “So many people say: before you know it your kids are gone – and we really want to have a lot of time with family.”
Luft said he’s looking forward to getting into the thick of things and is excited about instituting new ideas for collaborations both within the community and outside the school district – all driven by a desire to help students develop their individual potential and post-graduation readiness.
“I think gone are the days of districts fighting for kids,” he said. “I think our job is the about providing the best opportunity.”
Promisingly, he says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the amount of programming and extra curricular activities already offered by the district that in many circumstances far exceeded what he had  become accustomed to.
Meeting the staff here – they’re dedicated,” he said matter-of-factly. “I hope we can continue to move in the direction things have been going and have the high school meet its potential.”
Outside of school Luft said that his life is pretty simple, focused on family life as well as community involvement. In past locales he’s served on Staples-Motley Initiative Foundation, on scholarship committees and even spent six years on the fire department.
The diversity of such commitments is reflective of both his favorite aspect of administration as well as that which he finds most rewarding. “The best thing about being principal is that every day is different,” he said. “It’s humbling to know that your greatest reward is going to be a thank you.”