By Sue Moore
Students at Vicksburg’s Tobey Elementary School learn the “Tobey Way” – respect for their classmates, their teachers and others – when they walk in the door their first days at school. For this and many other attributes, their principal, Mike Barwegen, was selected as Principal of the Year in January by Southwest Michigan First.
He was recognized during Catalyst University, a daylong leadership training event hosted by the regional economic development organization at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo. Parents of children at Tobey wrote support letters, headed by Renee Hawkins, the PTO president, but didn’t tell Barwegen what they were doing. “It came as a complete surprise to me,” he said.
Parent Brett Grossman described the Tobey Way in his letter of support as: “Treat others with respect; Offer a helping hand; Be responsible; Expect excellence; Yearn to learn. These simple but important tenets – so often missing from schools and society – should be required practice of students of all ages and, at Tobey Elementary, they define a culture. Mr. B intentionally and specifically fosters this message through weekly “Tobey Community” assemblies. He has created an environment at the school in which every student seemingly has school pride and stakeholder interest.”
Another parent Kelly Daniels said: “He is incredibly involved and present within the school, you will often find him on playground during recess, taking a pie to the face or kissing a pig to support PTO fundraising, or working sun-up to sundown to ensure our students have the best possible education at Tobey. Relationships are clearly important to him and he has a talent for building those making the children feel important and respected. He instills in the children their abilities to make a difference and that no matter how young they are; they have gifts to make the world a better place.”
“He embodies what his expectations are for the children, consistently influencing them through his actions and attitude. School culture and influence don’t end with the students; the teaching staff at Tobey is the most remarkable group of educators that I have had the pleasure of working with. These teachers work collectively to ensure that every student at Tobey is meeting the fullest potential, all of which is led and supported by Mr. B,” Daniels continued.
Nicole Androsky said: “What impresses me most about Mr. B is his emphasis on raising our children to be good people. Plain and simple. Mr. B is consistently talking with the kids about ways that they can reach out to those in need of help. It could involve reaching out to a student who is alone on the playground or building awareness in the community about a particular struggle. He gives the children the support they need to believe in themselves and to make a difference. They can drive positive changes in our school and in our community.”
Prize money of $2,500 accompanied the award and the recognition. Barwegen and Hawkins put the money toward remodeling the teachers’ lounge. “The teachers are responsible for the whole thing. It’s their reward so this was just a small way we could give back to them,” he said.
The Catalyst Education Awards received applications from teachers, principals and entire schools from across southwest Michigan, competing in each of the three categories—school, principal and teacher— to be recognized for innovations and achievements in K-12 education. The 2018 winning educators recognized besides Barwegen were: Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, Amy Cummings, Dowagiac Middle School, Dowagiac.
Regional economic development organization Southwest Michigan First founded the Catalyst Education Awards with the mission of making Southwest Michigan recognized globally for its success in preparing young people to thrive in education and employment. According to Ron Kitchens, the organization’s chief executive officer, “Everyone can point to a single life-changing moment in their past that set them on their current path. And for many, this occurred in a classroom. We would like to celebrate the fact that across the region, these moments happen in our schools every day,” said CEO Ron Kitchens.