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Leader Among Us: Principal fearlessly leads with passion, enthusiasm PDF Print E-mail
Written by Darci Tomky   
“True passion is extremely hard to find in today’s society, but I believe Susan is very passionate about her job as not only a leader of our school but also as an educator.”

Passion, commitment, dedication and drive were just a few of the words nominator Angela Powell used to describe Susan Ortner, this year’s Leader Among Us for the 2013 Emerald Awards.

Currently in her sixth year as principal at Holyoke JR/SR High, it’s clear Ortner is deserving of the award by not only the abundance of school staff nomination letters but by the impact she has had on the school.

“In this leadership role, it is frequently obvious that she is committed to making a positive difference in the lives of her students and teachers,” said nominator Ashley Clayton, citing Ortner as someone who is strong and unwavering.

This Emerald Award recognizes and honors Ortner for her fearless leadership, guidance, enthusiasm and selfless dedication to her profession.



Holyoke JR/SR High School Principal Susan Ortner is dedicated to building personal relationships with her staff and students, encouraging them both in the classroom and beyond. Ortner, pictured above center, has fun during the seniors versus faculty fundraising basketball game in March. Pictured at left is family and consumer science teacher Karen Pieper (Ortner’s future daughter-in-law), and at right is senior Elissa Baker.  

—Enterprise photo


Teaching runs in the family

“That was all I was going to do from the time I was little,” said Ortner, never doubting she would fulfill her dream of becoming an educator.

Ortner’s mom, Jean Stone (now Jean Graham), was a home economics teacher, as well as some physical education and social studies, in Del Norte. She followed in the footsteps of her mom, Ethel Lyttle, who taught what was then called household arts in Los Angeles, Calif.

Having her mom as an instructor in grades 7-12, Ortner said she was a really good teacher and someone she looked to as a role model.

Ortner said she always knew she would go to CSU, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in vocational home economics education in 1977. She said she’s always enjoyed the food side of home ec but also really enjoyed her child development classes.

This third-generation home ec teacher started out in Berthoud for four years before moving to Holyoke in 1981. After three years of substitute teaching and a little bit of girls’ basketball coaching, Ortner became the HHS home economics teacher in 1984—a position, now known as family and consumer sciences, she would hold for 20 years.

It certainly boasts dedication when Ortner totals up her 32 years as an advisor for Future Homemakers of America and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, better known as FHA and FCCLA.

Ortner said counseling really touched on the areas she is familiar with, so in 2005 she took over the HHS counseling position, earning her master’s degree from the University of Phoenix in school counseling and human services in 2006 and a Type D Certificate and Colorado approved program for principal licensure in 2007.

That year former principal Dave Rice retired, giving Ortner the opportunity to explore the role of JR/SR High principal.


Ortner a pillar of support for educators

Besides the many meetings and committees with which a principal is required to participate, Ortner is deserving of the leadership award because, according to nominator Kimberlee Bennett, “She is not afraid to lead!”

Ortner is firm, consistent, organized, detail-oriented and timely, qualities that positively affect the efficiency and attitudes of those around her. “Everything she does is a priority, and every priority is done well,” said Summer Maloney in her nomination letter.

“Without her leadership, we would be lost,” added Maloney. “She has no fear as she heads out to lead our staff in the right direction.”

Whether she is collaborating with educators during Friday morning meetings or leading a committee, Ortner works to make people feel included and knowledgeable about what is expected of them in this profession.

“I assure teachers we’re going down the right track,” said Ortner, a principal who must continually deal with industry changes in evaluations, grading, after school programs and curriculum.

Her nominators said she guides them through these changes with current information to keep them at the forefront, providing positive communication and using problem solving to come to successful solutions.

“She models what she demands of others,” said Bennett. She leads with honesty and by example, added Powell, never asking anything of staff that she doesn’t do or wouldn’t be willing to do.

Ortner serves on committees including the Leadership Team, Standards of Excellence, District Wellness, Positive Behavior Support (discipline matrix) and the Administrative Council.

As one who sets up her teachers for success, Ortner said she loves getting into the classrooms. It’s all about seeing students learn and teachers teach, she said.

“I knew that I was supported and that she cared about my success,” said nominator Allie Billings, citing Ortner was in her classroom every day for the first couple weeks in her new position at the JR/SR High.

When she’s not giving high fives and pats on the back to her teachers, Ortner is a “sounding board, a shoulder to cry on and a source of sound advice,” said Clayton. She knows her staff personally, each one being more than just a staff member to her. “She rides the ups and downs with all of us and strives to have a positive impact in our lives,” added Clayton.



Susan Ortner poses with her mom, Jean Stone (now Jean Graham), in front of the high school home economics building where her mom taught in Del Norte. Teaching runs in the family, as Ortner’s grandmother, Ethel Lyttle, was also a home economics teacher.


Leadership goes beyond the walls of the school

Never underestimate the power of a simple gesture. Ortner’s high fives have become famous—an unadorned act that makes junior high and high school students feel like she truly cares about them.

“She knows every student by name and is always in the hallways during passing periods greeting students and asking them about their day, a game, a project, etc.” said Powell.

This principal develops personal relationships with students, inspiring them not only within the walls of the classroom but at athletic events, musical performances, organization fundraisers and more.

Every nominator mentioned her enthusiasm and the time she takes to get to know the students and attend their events. She is the Dragons’ biggest fan, often traveling miles to games—encouraging after mistakes, celebrating after victories and always on the sidelines demonstrating great pride and sportsmanship, according to Clayton’s nomination.

“I think it’s fun to watch kids, see them outside the classroom,” said Ortner, noting she loves to acknowledge when kids are doing a good job.

Ortner’s educational philosophy is that all students can learn, and she wants to instill a love of learning and develop an awareness that lifelong learning is so important for success in life.

“I want students to leave Holyoke High School well prepared and having had the opportunity to experience a wide variety of activities beyond the classroom,” she said. “It is important to me that students have a well-rounded education and that they believe their education has been relevant to their future.”

This principal has had students return to the school to say a simple thank you, recognizing the impact she had on their lives and their future after high school.

She said she wants students to know a town like Holyoke is a good place to be and that they can be successful in the opportunities they pursue in life.

In general, a high school student views the principal’s office as a negative place, but Ortner said she does not have a lot of discipline issues. This principal can then focus on the positive things in a student’s life and encourage them in the classroom and beyond.

This Leader Among Us is “building a school full of leadership, collaboration, acceptance and teamwork between staff and students,” said Maloney.

“I look at this as a shared award,” said the humble Emerald Award recipient, recognizing all the shared leadership roles throughout the school district.

But nominators, staff and students agree that Ortner is at the head, leading Holyoke JR/SR High to success, supporting during trials and striving for excellence.




Susan C. Ortner

Current position: JR/SR High principal.

Education: Graduated from Del Norte High School in 1973; Bachelor of Science degree in vocational home economics education from Colorado State University in 1977; master’s degree from the University of Phoenix in school counseling and human services in 2006; and a Type D Certificate, Colorado Approved Program for Principal Licensure from the University of Phoenix in 2007.

Job experience: Started teaching career in vocational home economics at Berthoud JR/SR High School, served as the FHA (Future Homemakers of America) advisor and as the JH girls’ basketball coach; spent four years teaching in Berthoud; moved to Holyoke in 1981; served as the varsity girls’ basketball coach one season and substitute taught for three years; started teaching home economics in 1984 and continued through 2005 and several name changes of the discipline to family and consumer sciences; completed 32 years as an FHA/FCCLA advisor; took over the school counselor position in 2005; hired as the JR/SR High School principal in 2007.

Family: Husband, Dan, married 32 years in June; three sons, John who is a fertilizer salesman at Lamar Fertilizer, Brian who farms with Dan (all part of a partnership known as Ortner Family Farms) and will be married this June to Karen Pieper, and Steven who is a 1st lieutenant in the United States Air Force (currently stationed at Lakenheath Air Force Base in England and will be deploying in May with the 56th Helicopter Maintenance Unit involved in combat search and rescue to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan for four months).

Hobbies: Time with family, travel, following the Dragons, reading, working in the yard and physical activity.

Community involvement: Member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

Favorite Holyoke school memories: The many opportunities I have had over the years to travel with students—I am always proud of our students and how well they represent us as a school and community. I frequently hear compliments on our students’ behavior. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching students grow into fine young adults, students who leave our school well prepared academically and as citizens ready to make positive contributions in their adult lives.

Favorite Holyoke memories: Raising our family in Holyoke and being part of a small, close-knit community; involvement in school projects which have impacted the community, such as helping with the demolition of the old Peerless building and cleaning old bricks which were reused in the new Peerless; initiating the community recycling center; working with the Wellness Committee to prepare for the public opening of the weight room this summer.

Role models: My parents and family members who have influenced and encouraged me all my life; my in-laws and the extended Ortner family for their example support and encouragement over the past 32 years; former teachers including my mother, college professors, former HHS teachers including Ann Rafert and Pam Vieselmeyer, as well as former principal Max Bernard who hired me to teach in Holyoke; the entire staff at Holyoke JR/SR High who work so hard each day to provide students with the best possible opportunities. So many staff members willingly share in leadership roles in the JR/SR High and have students’ best interests at heart. I very much appreciate their positive attitude and “can do” spirit!


Holyoke Enterprise April 25, 2013