Tollefson to retire after 30 years with L’Anse schools

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette L’Anse Area Schools Superintendent Susan Toleffson, seen in her office Wednesday, will retire in October after 30 years with the district, the past nine as superintendent.

L’ANSE — If you want people to work hard and make a sincere effort, you have to lead by example, Susan Tollefson said.

It’s what she’s tried to do as superintendent at L’Anse Area Schools.

“I think that most people that I’ve worked with would say that’s part of my legacy,” she said. “I’ll be there with the other people that are working below me to working with them to get things done and just putting the time in that’s needed and hard work.”

Tollefson announced last month she will be retiring as superintendent effective Oct. 1. She has spent her entire 30-year education career with the district, working as a teacher before serving the last nine years as superintendent.

A Covington native, Tollefson would eventually go on to attend L’Anse for her high school years. From there, she went to Michigan Technological University. Teaching wasn’t her original career plan: she got her bachelor’s degree in materials engineering.

While at Tech, Tollefson realized she also wanted to get her teaching certificate.

Partly, she wanted to stay in the Upper Peninsula, and “there weren’t a ton of engineering jobs,” she said. But when she started student teaching at Baraga, education moved from a backup plan to where she wanted to be.

“It’s just those connections you make with the students,” she said.

Tollefson said she’ll miss the relationships with the students and the staff.

“I love being a teacher and love seeing kids come back, on their breaks from college or after they graduated, coming back and talking about their memories of school, what they were doing with their lives now, or thanking you for things you had done for them while they were in your class,” she said.

After 21 years teaching math and science at the high school, Tollefson moved up to the superintendent position. Even while teaching, she’d been involved in leadership roles with the district with curriculum planning and school improvement.

And with her kids being teenaged and more independent, it was the right time for the transition, she said.

Being superintendent gave her a chance to make a difference for a broader range of students.

“Whether it’s starting a new program or upgrading facilities, bringing in grant funds, for a small rural school, it’s exciting to be able to offer more things to our students, more opportunities,” she said.

Being superintendent during the COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest challenge of her tenure, Tollefson said. She said the district was able to get through it because of the strong relationships and trust developed between faculty, employees and students.

“One of the things that have always made the challenges that we’ve faced manageable is, I’ve been fortunate to work with a supportive school board,” she said. “I can say that, honestly, for my entire career as superintendent, I’ve had a very good school board to work with that understands their role and helps manage the district responsibly.”

During Tollefson’s time as superintendent, L’Anse has been able to create new collaborations with districts and community agencies. Through a partnership with BHK Child Development, the district added a preschool room. The district also partnered with local law enforcement to bring in a school resource officer this year.

With grant funding after COVID, L’Anse was able to add two school social workers and additional nursing staff. Individual staff members have also brought in programs they’re passionate about, such as e-sports and robotics.

“It’s exciting seeing those kinds of programs take off,” Tollefson said.

Several additions have also come through the Copper Country Intermediate School District. A new classroom for mild cognitive impairments at the junior-senior high school enables students to get the assistance they need without having to travel to Hancock. Another partnership expanded the career and technical education offerings in the district.

Last year, L’Anse also launched an early middle college program in collaboration with the ISD and Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College.

Through the passage of a sinking fund, L’Anse has also made building and site improvements — replacing roofs, adding a concession and bathroom building at the football field, and completing the baseball and softball fields, which just had a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

And despite declining enrollment, the district has been able to maintain financial security with community help, Tollefson said.

With the district on good footing and a solid administrative team to help with the transition, Tollefson felt like this was a good time for her to announce her retirement.

“It’s been a great career and I’m thankful that I was able to have this opportunity here in the town that has always been my home, because a lot of people do have to leave to find the career path that they’re seeking,” she said. “And I was able to do that where I went to school.”

Her priority is a smooth transition between now and October. By that time, the budget for the coming year will be completed, along with scheduling, personnel and the previous year’s fiscal audit.

“We don’t have any millage campaigns going on,” she said. “We don’t have any major facility projects. We replaced all the windows, that was going on for last year. …So it should be good timing.”

Tollefson hasn’t made any definite plans for after retirement. She plans to spend more time and help out with her parents, who live with her brother. And she has plenty of outdoor hobbies, such as fishing, hunting, kayaking and camping.

“And of course, when you’re busy with your career, home projects and stuff kind of pile up,” she said. “So for a little while, I’m going to do that, and then we’ll just see where life takes me.”

She’ll miss the students, and the co-workers she’s built relationships with over the years. But she will get to experience the start of the school year one more time before she retires.

“There’s so much excitement when the students return to the building, the energy of kids,” she said. “Obviously, I will still attend school events, but it’s not the same as being here every day.”

As she prepares to retire, Tollefson is encouraging young people to consider going into education.

Michigan is experiencing a shortage of certified teachers, leading them to be more valued, she said. And for young professionals raising a family, having a stable schedule is a big benefit.

“I know when my kids were young, I always felt fortunate to have those summers off with them, even though there’s some you know, learning and planning that goes on from time to time,” she said. “Looking back, it’s been a great career, and I hope that more young people consider it.”


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