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The principal with no students

He's a principal without any students and with only a shell of a building.

But for Aaron Harper, the top man at Woodbury's newest high school, that doesn't make for a quiet life.

It may still be 18 months until East Ridge High School opens its doors to the first students, but Harper is already finding himself working long hours, seven days a week.

"It's very common to work 12-hour days," he said. "You will often find me working at 5.30 a.m. and I'll still be there after 5.30 p.m.

"I try to lie in on Saturdays," he added. "I think for most people it's difficult to comprehend all the stuff which has to be got done and how organized and thoughtful and planned out things have to be."

Take even a moment to think about the practicalities of opening a new $95 million high school, which will eventually cater for about 1,700 students (that's 1,250 the first year, when there will not be any senior intake, and 1,700 thereafter), and it becomes clear that there's a lot to cover.

Right now, Harper -- who was named as the East Ridge principal last summer -- is in the middle of a process involving the community in creating and selecting the new song, mascot, colors and academic insignia for the high school.

That means a tight timetable of public meetings, drawing up shortlists, putting the finalists out for public comment and then presenting the winning ideas to the school board March 20.

In addition to all that, Harper is heavily involved with the district-wide high school review, which is looking to overhaul secondary education, the elementary and middle school boundary groups and with the group which will set the boundaries for East Ridge -- and he also coordinated the massive Taste of South Washington County Extravaganza last Tuesday evening.

"I think for the first three months [in the job], people would say, 'Aaron's not even working'," Harper laughed. "It's like they were thinking, 'There's no school, there are no kids, what are you doing?' But being the planning principal of a school is a lot more than supervising students and responding to e-mails.

"The real work is what we are doing right now, for example, with the song and the colors and the mascot. A larger, conceptual task is building a school culture and a community that doesn't yet exist."

The word "community" is big in Harper's vocabulary. It's one he uses a lot, not just in reference to his new school, but also to refer to the wider school district.

He sees East Ridge High as having a pivotal role in pulling together sections of that wider community which have possibly been at odds in recent times.

"I'm very passionate about relationships and building community," explained Harper. "We want East Ridge to represent the district, not simply another school that happens to be in Woodbury. There's some tension between North and South [i.e. Woodbury and Cottage Grove] and you can, in my opinion, add in West [Newport and St. Paul Park].

"I really do view this as an opportunity as a district for us to come together."

Harper graduated from Tartan High School in Oakdale ("We were always competitors with Woodbury," he chuckled), and started his career in education as a science teacher at Irondale High School in the Mounds View School District.

Moving from there to Bloomington, he then started casting his eye around for positions closer to Woodbury, his home of the last nine years.

In 2006, that position became available, in the shape of the principalship at Oltman Junior High in St. Paul Park.

Towards the end of that first year, as the rumor of a new high school in District 833 became a reality, Harper applied to be principal at Woodbury's youngest high school, and started officially last August.

One of his hopes for East Ridge is to prepare students to compete in a global economy, putting Woodbury and Cottage Grove kids a step ahead of the rest.

"I sit down with my boys, who are in third and fourth grade, and I help them with their math," said Harper. "Because I'm older, they had better be learning something different than I did. They had better be learning something more advanced and they had better be learning it quicker than I did.

"I think that also applies to the high school. We can make sure every kid can turn on a computer and type, but we had better make sure that they can do more than that."