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A conversation with new Cook County ISD 166 Principal Josh Belanger: Helping Students Feel Connected

Sep 06, 2023 08:52AM ● By Content Editor
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By Local Writer Nancy Giguere for Boreal Community Media - July 13, 2023

As a kid, Josh Belanger spent many vacations on the North Shore. Later on, he and his family often visited his brother who had moved to Silver Bay, and “We all fell in love with the North Shore in all seasons.” 

Belanger likes to tell how, on their one-year wedding anniversary, he and his wife, Katie, hiked from the Canadian border to Grand Marais on the Superior Hiking Trail. It was July, and they walked into the Arts Festival and bought a three-dimensional piece of art that they still have on their wall.

“It was always our goal to live on the North Shore,” Belanger said. 

Recently, they achieved that goal at the beginning of July when he began working as the new principal of Cook County School District 166. 

Katie has also taken on a new role as associate executive director of the Cook County YMCA. The whole family enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, and hunting. In the summer, Belanger and his sons enjoy going down to the harbor and throwing rocks into the Big Lake. In the winter, the family likes to ski, although Belanger notes that his kids would be upset if he didn’t explain that their dad snowboards while the rest of the family skis. 

Career highlights

Belanger, who grew up in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, received a bachelor’s degree in education from Winona State University. His focus was special education, especially students with learning disabilities and those with developmental and cognitive delays. After graduation, he spent five years as a special ed teacher at Anoka High School, where he taught language arts to students with learning and emotional disabilities. He also coached football, track, and lacrosse. 

His next stop was Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a smaller, independent school in St. Louis Park. For 10 years, he managed 504 plans for middle school students with learning disabilities. These are formal plans that schools develop to give kids with disabilities the support they need to succeed alongside their peers in a general education classroom. He also taught literature and life skills classes, which focused on topics relevant to teens like advertising and media influences, chemical awareness, addiction, and global awareness. His coaching duties included football, as well as coordinating the ski and snowboard club.

Most recently, Belanger served as assistant principal at Coon Rapids High School.

Attention to individual needs

In reflecting on his career in education thus far, he notes that he has benefited from working in both public and independent schools. Ultimately, he decided that public education aligns better with his values as a principal and administrator. 

These values are also shaped by his experience in special education. “As a special education teacher, I’ve spent my entire career attentive to the individual needs of my students,” he said. “Can we do that with all students so they see themselves and their lived experience in school, so they feel seen and connected to the school community?”

Serving as principal at Cook County ISD 166 is “an exciting opportunity,” Belanger said. Class sizes are small, which means that it’s easier to connect with students. His role is to ensure that teachers and staff have the time and support to make that connection.

“It’s the classic story of helping young people overcome things that might seem overwhelming to them,” he said. “It’s about providing support so they can figure things out on their own.”

A place in the community

Belanger sees many strengths in Cook County. “I’ve observed such resiliency in both the school and community,” he said. He’s excited about the many arts and environmental opportunities open to students through community organizations like North House Folk School and the Grand Marais Art Colony. He points out that students also have opportunities to earn certificates in subjects that reflect the interests of the greater community, like ATV and firearms safety.

As he settles into his new role, Belanger plans to take time to understand the people and the places in Cook County. “This is important for anyone in a serving role,” he said. He looks forward to working with the entire community to help students find success, whether that’s academic, social, athletic, or emotional success. 

“As a parent, that’s what I want for my own kids,” said Belanger, whose sons will be students at the elementary school.

“We feel really grateful to be here, to have a place in this community,” he said. “We look forward to growing and working here.”

About Nancy Giguere

Nancy is a retired freelance writer who moved to Grand Marais in 2021.  Before "officially retiring" in 2012, she had 20 years of experience writing for various units of the University of Minnesota, the marketing publications of the Star Tribune, the Minnesota Department of Education, and other organizations. 

Since retiring, she has volunteered as a writer/editor for WaterLegacy, a nonprofit working to counter the threat of sulfide mining proposed for Northern Minnesota. She helps draft and edit grant applications, email blasts, website content, and other materials

Related: Meet your Cook County Neighbor: Nancy Giguere

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