Dan Mills, BHS Principal

Dan Mills, the new principal of Bozeman High School, poses for a photo Wednesday in the high school library.

Dan Mills enjoys getting out of the principal’s office and walking school hallways, being around students and getting to know them better.

“It’s grounding,” Mills said, a good reminder of “why we do what we do.”

Mills, 39, Bozeman High School’s new principal, started July 1 in his new job, in charge of Montana’s largest high school.

“I’m excited to be here,” Mills said this week. “You can tell just walking around this school ... there’s a positive energy. Most students are doing the right things even when nobody’s looking.”

Back in February, when he was one of six finalists, Mills said his excitement grew through the long day of interviews. With teachers and community members turning out to quiz the candidates, he could see that Bozeman High is a school with high expectations, in a high-achieving district and a community that values education.

Asked if he’s planning any changes right away, Mills said he’s in a learning stage, and Bozeman High already faces two major challenges.

First is the transition to two high schools when new Gallatin High School opens a year from now and Bozeman High’s 2,200 students will be split between the two schools.

Then Bozeman High will undergo two years of major renovations. A new auditorium, two-story classroom building and student commons will be constructed.

“I’m looking forward to five years down the road, once Gallatin High and Bozeman High have stabilized, and we have a Friday night football game – that’s going to be exciting,” Mills said. “I’m going to hope Bozeman High wins, (but) I think we’re all here to cheer for everybody.”

Though officials are busy planning the future, he said they need to remember the students at school this year and make sure it’s a positive experience for them.

Mills came to Bozeman from Athens, Michigan, where he was an assistant principal for four years at Troy High School, which has more than 1,500 students.

Before that, he was an English teacher for 10 years.

A Michigan native, Mills grew up in the Detroit suburb of Lake Orion. His dad was an English teacher for 35 years and his mom a school superintendent’s secretary.

After graduating from Catholic Brother Rice High School in 1997, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State in 2001.

He worked for a year at an advertising firm, where auto giant Chrysler was the main client, but decided that wasn’t for him. So he earned his teaching credential from the University of Michigan at Flint, and later earned a master’s degree in Michigan.

His first teaching job was at Carver High in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he taught for two years. He and his wife, Lauryn, returned home to Michigan in 2007 when a teaching job opened at Troy High near his hometown.

Mills loved teaching literature by Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Joyce, but the thing that got him hooked was the kids.

“I liked students,” Mills said. “At the end of the day, we like students and try to help students.”

As an assistant principal, Mills often had to deal with student misbehavior. Today, he said, educators understand that it’s not enough to impose consequences on students, but it’s just as important to seek restorative justice, righting the wrong. Nobody gets excited about the job of handing out tardies to kids, he said.

“The more exciting thing about our job is trying to help our students, caring for our students,” Mills said. “Helping students who need extra help, pushing students who need to be pushed more, forgiving students who need to be forgiven.”

He and his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, have two girls and a boy in first to fifth grades. The walls of his new office are decorated with family photos, his daughter’s paintings, a photo of Hemingway’s home in Key West and a Michigan State Spartans sign.

So far in Bozeman, Mills said he has been mountain biking, fly fishing and running several miles a week. Bozeman has a lot more uphills than Michigan, he has noticed. It’s been a while since he’s run a full marathon, but he hopes to run in the Bozeman half-marathon in September.

“As I get to know students and parents and teachers, I hope everyone knows I’m open and available. I want to hear from them,” Mills said. “My door is going to be open.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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