Mike Van Vuren first visited Bozeman three years ago while touring the West and its national parks. He liked the college town enough to think he'd try for a job here if the chance ever came up.

The chance came this year, when the Bozeman School District was searching for a new principal for Hyalite Elementary, to replace retiring Robbye Hamburgh.

Van Vuren, 38, an elementary principal back in his home state of Michigan, was chosen out of 63 applicants.

"I'm very excited," Van Vuren said Monday, sitting in his office in Hyalite School, which opened two years ago on West Babcock Street.

Van Vuren started work this month and already has been decorating his office with college pennants, from Georgetown to the University of Wisconsin, mementoes of college basketball gyms he has visited.

Basketball has been a big part of Van Vuren's life. Growing up in a small western Michigan farming town, he played high school point guard for the Wayland Wildcats. In college, he started coaching basketball for middle-school students.

"The more I worked with kids, the more I enjoyed that time," he said. "I thought education might be a career for me."

While coaching, he met his future wife, Mikki, then working as a school communication specialist.

He graduated from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., in health, physical education and recreation with an elementary education and reading minor. He earned a master's degree in educational leadership from Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Van Vuren taught elementary students for 10 years. He then served as a principal for two years at the Inland Lakes Schools, at both the middle school and the 430-student elementary school. He also served three years as athletic director.

The recession has hit Michigan hard. Per-student funding has consistently decreased, he said, and in his former county, enrollment has been falling the last five years.

At Hyalite, he'll face the opposite problem - growing pains. The school has grown from 240 students two years ago to 405 last year. This fall it's expected to hit 470.

Hyalite, named after the peaks south of Bozeman, emphasizes connecting kids with nature and having "no child left inside."

"It's a great theme for kids," Van Vuren said. He described himself as "an enthusiastic person, someone who truly believes in public education and the values public education provides a community."

What made Van Vuren stand out as the best candidate was "his ability to build relationships" at his school in Michigan, Bozeman Superintendent Kirk Miller said. "He did a great job building teams to improve student learning."

He will be paid $86,926.

Jodi Murray, past president of Hyalite's parent council, said she found Van Vuren to be "a real calming presence, real approachable, open to new ideas. I think he's going to be a wonderful addition to the school."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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