By Courtney Oldwyn
On a cool, early fall morning out front of Friday Harbor Elementary School a two-foot-tall, bright blue Cookie Monster Muppet is squished up against the front windshield under the wipers of a big, yellow school bus. Its furry arms and legs are splayed out like a bug against the glass.
It’s controlled by new principal Caspar Van Haalen — and he’s loving it. He is also there, waving, high fiving and encouraging each child to have fun as they hop on the bus.
Van Haalen was hired after Diane Ball resigned at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. With a resume that includes more than 19 years experience as a teacher and administrator, Van Haalen comes qualified; but as students, parents and staff are beginning to learn he also has a silly side.
Most mornings Van Haalen greets each student at the front doors of the school as they arrive with Cookie Monster in tow handing out high fives and sometimes Oreos, which seems to be a hit with the students. Melanie Wilson, mom of students Kyra and Liam, said her children are enjoying the Muppet’s presence.
“All they talk about is Cookie Monster!” she said.
But Van Haalen is not just about puppets and cookies. In his home country of The Netherlands, he taught English and college prep courses at the middle and high school level. After taking a year-long sabbatical in Port Angeles with his wife and young son (his daughter was born here during that year) he fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.
“I love the water, the mountains, the tall fir trees,” said Van Haalen. “We don’t have the same in the Netherlands.”
After officially moving to the United States in 2000, Van Haalen taught English and English as a second language to middle and high schoolers in Ellensburg and south Seattle before deciding to try his hand at administration.
“I felt like maybe I can make more of an impact outside of the classroom,” he said. “That I might have what it takes to be an effective leader.”
An interest in how schools operate and who is ultimately responsible for making decisions about how a school is run led to a short term job as interim principal in Tukwila.
“After that time I was at a point in my career where I knew that I wanted to be in a smaller community,” Van Haalen said. “I was really happy this opportunity came up.”
During the interview process this past summer, Friday Harbor Parent-Teacher Organization President Stacey Bailey was part of the committee meeting with potential new hires. She remembered that Van Haalen made a good first impression.
“Right off the bat I could tell he was well put together,” she said. “But also human, just like anyone else.”
Bailey said she was impressed with his lengthy resume and how he was able to settle his initial nervousness.
Bailey was also impressed with Van Haalen’s immediate commitment to becoming part of the community. He volunteered at the PTO Pie Booth during this year’s fair for multiple shifts.
“There are lots of community events I want to attend,” said Van Haalen. “I volunteered in the pie booth but the Fourth of July was really our first event here on the island. I’m looking forward to Halloween where I’ve been told the kids parade through town in their costumes.”
The high level of community and staff involvement Van Haalen noticed over the summer impressed him.
“I noticed there was staff here over the summer, just working or preparing their classrooms,” he said. “That’s something I’ve never seen before.”
Ensuring all school staff members feel appreciated and recognized is important to him.
“Happy staff leads to happy kids,” he said. “I want us to be on the same mission.”
That mission has a lot to do with Van Haalen’s feelings that a school should be like a “building without walls,” with community and parent support and transparency at all levels.
“We can’t be open enough about what we do,” he said. “I believe this community has a vested interest in our kids getting the best education. We owe them letting them know what’s going on.”
Wilson said she has already seen this in action. Before the school year even began she met with the new principal.
“I had some concerns,” she said. “I emailed him, he responded right away and set up a meeting. He answered all of my questions.”
For now, Van Haalen is focused on connecting with the students, staff and community but also has plans for the future of the school.
“We can look at numbers and say this could be better but how do you get there?” he said. “I want to have systems to put into place that benefit kids and adults.”
Making systemic changes to improve the organization is high on Van Haalen’s list of priorities.
“I’m not a micromanager but I believe in systems. I have mid and long term plans for systems to construct and follow and put in place. If we all follow and buy into them it benefits the kids and staff. The overarching plan is consistency and fidelity.”
Making sure that students have the social, emotional and mental health to be able to succeed academically is also important to Van Haalen.
“I want to be involved in the social and emotional well being of the kids. I want to learn to recognize and deal with these issues accordingly. … Every child can learn, no matter their background but we need equitable services such as English as a Second Language,” he said. “The challenge is to put those accommodations into place. We may have to learn as a school together to make sure kids get what they need.”
The Cookie Monster plays a part in Van Haalen’s mission, as a fun way for the kids to connect with him.
“When I changed from working with high school to elementary-age children I realized that the little ones, they want to hug you all the time! The puppet became a way for them to connect, hug, high five, greet in a silly way. It’s very tactile, kids love stuffed animals and it sparks their imagination,” he said. “Academics are important but we also have to cater to their creative minds. I want to spark a love of learning in them”