Micah Hill Reflects on 25 years with the Kalispell Public Schools

As he prepares to lead Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), Hill discussed navigating the pandemic, opening the doors of Glacier High School and leading a school district in one of public education’s most contentious chapters

By Denali Sagner
Micah Hill, Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent, is pictured in downtown Kalispell on Feb. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In 25 years with the Kalispell Public Schools (KPS), Superintendent Micah Hill has worn a lot of hats.

After first arriving in Kalispell in 2001 as a high school English teacher, Hill climbed the administrative ranks in the district, becoming a dean of students, assistant principal, principal and, ultimately, the superintendent of the Kalispell schools, a position he accepted days before schools shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, with the opening of a brand new high school, a global pandemic, and the creation of a robust work-based learning program behind him, Hill is getting ready to close the book on his time in Kalispell. The educator in March accepted an offer to become the superintendent of the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), a district that enrolls more than two times the number of students in the KPS system.

As he finishes up his final weeks in the district where he spent nearly his entire career, Hill reflected on a rewarding but challenging tenure and on the issues that lie ahead for the district’s next top administrator.  

Hill graduated from Montana State University in 1997 with a degree in English education, and started his career as an educator at Colstrip High School, where he taught English and coached extracurricular sports. After a year in Colstrip, Hill moved up to the Flathead Valley, where he became an English teacher and coach at Bigfork High School, and later Kalispell’s Flathead High School.

“I didn’t teach for very long overall, in the scope of my career,” Hill said, discussing his journey in academia that launched him into administrative roles only a few years out of college.

In 2002, Hill became the dean of students at Kalispell Junior High School, then the principal of Linderman Middle School in 2004, and then, in 2007, the assistant principal of Glacier High School, a role he took on for 11 years. 

Students walk through the commons area at Glacier High School during lunch on March 24, 2017. Beacon file photo.

In considering the long arc of his career in the Kalispell Public Schools, Hill is most proud of his role as a founding administrator at Glacier High School, Kalispell’s second public high school, which opened its doors for the first time in 2007. The inauguration of Glacier served as the culmination of a years-long process by the district, which was reckoning with overflowing classrooms at Flathead, its first and only high school building.

Alongside then-principal Callie Langohr, KPS superintendent Mark Flatau and assistant principal Lance Labrum, Hill helped welcome the first class of students to Glacier as an assistant principal.

“Not many people get an opportunity to do that, in Montana in particular, because so few high schools open up. Working with Callie and Mark and Lance, to do that and build something from the ground up is a huge accomplishment, because you set the tone and the vision for a school for 100 years to come,” Hill said. “Everything that happened in and around that is pretty special.”

Hill became the principal of Glacier High School in 2018, taking over for Langhor. He led the high school for two years until Flatau retired, and the school board selected Hill as the district’s next superintendent. One week later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Flathead Valley.

“I tried to make this transition from being a high school principal and having the entire building remote for the first time ever for a three-month stint, to being the superintendent and overseeing running a district in the midst of COVID,” Hill remembered. “It was challenging.”

Chairs are spaced apart for a staff meeting at Kalispell Middle School on August 21, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Under Hill’s leadership, KPS was the only Class AA school district in the state of Montana to avoid pandemic-related closures during the 2020-2021 school year, a feat that many educators and school board members laud as an accomplishment of Hill’s, and attribute to the district’s decision to require masks in schools.

The Northwest Montana Association of School Superintendents in 2021 named Hill “superintendent of the year” for the northwest region.

“I am honored to have worked with Micah as board chair for the past two years. He has made bold decisions during his career with KPS. He lead us through the pandemic, supported personalized learning in our schools, collaborated with the board on a five year strategic plan, supervised the construction of a new transportation building, received advanced opportunity grants and hired an additional assistant superintendent,” KPS School Board Member and former Board Chair Sue Corrigan told the Beacon. “Micah’s passion for education set the stage for KPS to continue on a path of excellence.”

Yet the challenges of the pandemic tested Hill’s administration, as well as the relationship between parents and the educators tasked with caring for their children. Three years after the onset of the public health crisis, Hill said remnants of the pandemic remain at KPS, some of which have changed the nature of his role as an administrator.

“Depending on the decision I made, it either endeared me to some families, or it alienated me from others,” Hill said, reflecting on the district’s COVID-19 response protocols. “I don’t begrudge anybody for those sentiments. Again, we were just trying to do the best job we could with the information that we had. No one was getting it perfect or doing it right.”

In the spring and summer of 2021, parents and students staged protests against mask mandates, during which they called out local and school officials who enforced COVID-19 mitigation protocols. The district saw increasing hostility at school board meetings. That April, a slate of five challengers ran for the KPS school board on an anti-mask platform. The conservative candidates also campaigned on limiting what they described as a left-wing agenda in classrooms and teaching a more robust constitutional curriculum. Four of the five challengers lost to incumbents.

Students, parents and others gather outside Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District’s face mask requirement on March 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Though the specter of mask mandates is now behind the district, the “parental rights” movement has become a fixture in the local and national dialogue around schools, spawning what Hill sees as a lingering mistrust of educators and a misaligned skepticism around what goes on inside classrooms.  

Hill called it a “manufactured crisis in education.”

“There’s this national narrative that comes out of, like, Florida and Texas that really doesn’t have a place in Montana,” he said. “It creates a lot of concern, but it isn’t well placed. If anybody walks through our schools and sees what’s going on, they understand what our commitment is to education and the things that we’re teaching in our classrooms.”

Hill cited a September 2022 column written by Montana’s U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, then a candidate, which assailed the Biden administration’s “radical woke agenda” in schools, and said “classrooms are becoming more focused on indoctrination rather than teaching core curriculum.”

“It was really unfair and just a mischaracterization of a public education as a whole,” Hill said about Zinke’s column. “It’s hard to control that narrative. It’s not like I get up every morning and figure out — how am I going to combat the social media narrative or the national news narrative? I just don’t have the time and energy to do that.”

Amid the contention wrought by the pandemic, Hill is proud of the accomplishments of his team over the past three years.

The Kalispell Public Schools in recent years have developed one of the state’s most robust work-based learning curriculums, creating a wide-ranging internship program and partnering with local businesses and organizations to expose students to hands-on educational opportunities from a young age. The district’s “transformational education” program even garnered a visit from Gov. Greg Gianforte in April, who praised Kalispell educators for their work on expanding learning beyond the classroom.

Governor Greg Gianforte visits Flathead High School in Kalispell for a roundtable discussion with local educators, students and business owners in a discussion about their education and internship programs on April 5, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“We realized that all education doesn’t happen inside the four walls of a classroom. It doesn’t happen between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It doesn’t happen just between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” Hill said. “It’s a flexible system of learning and our mandate is to develop the full potential of every child.”

The superintendent is quick to praise the district’s teachers and administrators, and the quality of instruction that goes on in Kalispell classrooms.

“If there was one message that I would want to have resonate with our community and our staff, it’s that we’re really good,” Hill said. “I would hold the Kalispell school system up to any system in the nation. Great teachers, great curriculum, great content. But there’s also this idea of, how can we be even better? And how do we support all kids?”

As Hill moves towards his departure next month, challenges remain. He highlighted repeated failures to pass a high school levy and enduring struggles with mental health as difficulties that the school board and interim superintendent Randy Cline will be tasked with navigating.

While he calls the moment “bittersweet,” Hill is excited to make the move to Missoula this summer, where his three adult children live.  

“What I would hope is that people felt valued, cared for,” Hill said, reflecting on his 25 years in the Kalispell schools. “There have certainly been hard conversations and decisions along the way, but all with the best intent.”

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