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Tara Estep is principal at Hansen Elementary School in Cedar Falls.

Seventeenth in a series of stories on this year’s 20 Under 40 winners.

CEDAR FALLS — For Tara Estep, a career as an educator was a given.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, from a child I always played school,” said the 38-year-old principal of Hansen Elementary School. “I didn’t always know I wanted to be an administrator.”

She received encouragement to pursue the role very early in her career, though. During an interview for her first job, Estep was told by a Cedar Falls Community Schools administrator that she would be great in such a leadership position.

At that point, Estep was applying for a classroom teaching job. She was hired by the district and taught at Orchard Hill Elementary School for seven years.

Estep grew up on a farm near West Union and, after graduating from North Fayette High School, she enrolled in the University of Northern Iowa. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and, later, a master’s degree in educational leadership. She and her husband, Mark, have a 4-year-old son, Jace.

In her teaching position, Estep “started getting leadership roles” and began seriously thinking about pursuing administrative positions. “It was just a natural fit,” she said.

Estep left Orchard Hill to become an administrator at Wapsie Valley Community Schools for a year. She then returned to Cedar Falls and is now in her eighth year as Hansen’s principal. Her hope as a principal is to “make a greater impact” on students’ education than she would in a single classroom.

“I think my heart is for people — that’s kids, that’s adults,” she said.

Estep’s community involvement reflects that attitude, as well. She serves on the Cedar Falls bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee, Cedar Valley’s Promise board and UNI’s Lutheran student center board. She also teaches Sunday school and serves on church committees.

“Tara has created a family at Hansen Elementary; she cares about each and everyone one of staff and 600-plus students,” said Janelle Darst, coordinator of communications and community relations for Cedar Falls Schools. Darst nominated her for the 20 Under 40 honor. “She is devoted, passionate and every decision she makes is always about what’s best for the kids.”

Darst added that Estep sets high expectations, “which is clear in the level of achievement” at the school. Hansen was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2016, one of 329 across the country, for being an exemplary high-performing school. It received the 2017 Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award from the Iowa Department of Education for reducing the achievement gap of students with an individualized education program on the Iowa Assessments.

A central part of Estep’s job is making “those decisions daily on what’s best for kids” as one member of a hard-working team at the school, she noted. “I would say that’s my sole driving factor in the work that I do.”

She cited “fantastic colleagues” in Cedar Falls Schools, including Superintendent Andy Pattee and Director of Elementary Education Pam Zeigler, for helping to mentor her.

“Kind of that life role model is definitely my mom,” added Estep.

Her mom, Deb Chensvold, started as a nursing aid as a teenager and then became a nurse at West Union’s hospital. She advanced from licensed practical nurse to registered nurse to director of home health and hospice. Eventually, she rose through the ranks to become the hospital’s chief executive officer.

Both her mom and her dad, Allen Chensvold, are now retired.

Her mom has “that unwavering devotion to putting faith first and then family, a true heart for people,” she said. “That’s just been wonderful over these past years.”

Estep added, “I hope to be half the person that she is.”

Friday: Gina Weekley

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Courier

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