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Jessica Guse, a second-grade teacher at Piedmont Elementary School, tapes up a cardboard apple barrel display on her classroom door Thursday afternoon to welcome her students back when school starts next week. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Duluth's Piedmont Elementary School travels bumpy path to change

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news Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

Every Thursday during recess, Piedmont Elementary School students who have been particularly well-behaved get to take a mini-shopping spree on the school’s dime.

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“They can only spend a dollar,” said Shelley Scott, who operates the Piedmont school store — a newly introduced shop on wheels that peddles bouncy balls, popcorn and, of course, school supplies. “It teaches them responsibility and how to make choices with money.”

The store and a wave of other recent projects suggest Piedmont is lifting itself out from a tumultuous past few years, said Scott, who credited first-year principal Becky Gerdes for creating a more open and welcoming culture at the school, which begins a new year on Tuesday.

“We wouldn’t have done the school store in the past,” said Scott, the parent of two children — Lauren, a fifth-grader, and Johnny, a second-grader — who attend Piedmont. “It’s been nothing but positive in my eyes for the past year.”

But the changes introduced by Gerdes, which include alternative teaching methods and new programs geared toward increasing parent involvement, have not been universally well-received.

Of Piedmont’s 22 classroom teachers from the 2013-14 school year, 10 either have retired or transferred elsewhere in the school district. The vacancies have been filled, Gerdes said, with “top-notch teaching staff.”

Gerdes declined to comment on the teachers who opted to leave, saying, “I need to move forward, get rejuvenated, focus on the current Piedmont staff, students and families, and not continue to go back to the past.”

A troubled marriage

Tim Doyle, last year’s Piedmont Parent-Teacher Association president, said he saw staff resist and even fight the changes, some of which prompted teachers to overhaul their existing lesson plans and attend school events outside the workday.

“Immediately at the beginning of the year, grievances started to come — what’s in your job responsibility, and what’s outside your job responsibility?” Doyle said. “You have these teachers who are so against the changes, and then you have these ones that are so much in support.”

Gerdes, who came to Piedmont after leaving her job as principal of Jefferson Elementary School in Rochester, Minn., inherited a school with conflict and discord already bubbling.

Piedmont, filled with high-achieving students who consistently placed above state averages on standardized tests, merged with what used to be Lincoln Park Elementary School in 2010. The marriage bridged two neighborhoods that differ sharply demographically and socioeconomically and gave rise to behavioral and academic problems at the school.

Sara Hill, a kindergarten teacher hired the year of the merger, said rifts also developed among staff, with Piedmont teachers and former Lincoln Park teachers often at odds.

“I felt kind of isolated,” Hill said. “This is the first year I’ve really felt a part of the staff.”

Hill said Gerdes’ vision for the school involved a “paradigm shift.”

Teachers were required to tailor their lessons to all students, meaning separate tasks and materials for students with different abilities.

The implementation of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, a data-based approach to discipline, pushed teachers and support staff to work with misbehaving students instead of sending them directly to the principal’s office.

And an emphasis on parent involvement spawned dozens of new programs and events designed to connect the school with its families.

One such program — the school store — evolved from an idea Scott had last fall and came together over the school’s winter break.

With help from her kids, Lauren and Johnny, Scott painted the store and combed catalogs for products students would enjoy.

“We weren’t out to make a penny,” she said.

Doyle, who also has two children enrolled at Piedmont for this fall — Alyssa, a third-grader, and Drew, a kindergartner — said the new programs in and outside the classroom have kept him from sending his children to another school.

“What I see at Piedmont right now, it’s worth all the headaches,” he said.

An ambitious goal

As the first day of school inched closer last year, Gerdes assembled teachers and parents to discuss plans for the upcoming year.

The new principal announced her intentions to elevate Piedmont from the state’s “focus” category, reserved for the bottom 10 percent of Title I schools, to the “reward” category, reserved for the top 15 percent, in just three years.

“I knew right away last summer there was going to be a lot of resistance to change,” Doyle said. And there was.

While some teachers seemingly embraced reform, including having students run in place during class spelling bees, others protested, abandoning certain projects — among them a reading log that asked students to spend 20 minutes with a book each night — in the middle of the year.

“It’s really just personality conflicts,” Doyle said. “Some of them are very good teachers. I can look at it from their perspective. But at the expense of our kids, that’s a difficult thing to swallow.”

Phone calls to several of the departing teachers, not all of whom actively protested the changes, were not returned. Only one ex-Piedmont staff member agreed to an interview.

Hill and other teachers said the transition wasn’t easy, especially for teachers who had grown comfortable with methods now being called into question.

One of the biggest developments, Hill said, was the emergence of collaborative teaching.

Instead of being responsible only for students in their classroom, teachers were asked to take more interest in the education of all students, meaning frequent dialogue and idea-sharing among teachers.

For the staff who participated, those conversations led to more control over decisions related to the classroom, Hill said, rather than the administration handing down orders.

“The days of teaching behind closed doors are over,” Hill said. Working with other teachers has helped Hill patch holes in her lessons, she said, and afforded students in her classroom better learning opportunities.

“We’re making decisions based on what’s best for children,” she said, “not what’s most convenient for us.”

Leap of faith

Tanya Jackson, a fourth-grade teacher and one of the 10 classroom teachers leaving Piedmont, said she spoke with a number of parents throughout the year who were skeptical of the path Piedmont was following.

“We would be fooling ourselves to say that the parents are super-excited,” Jackson said. “I’ve had parents come up to me frequently and say, ‘What’s going on?’ As a parent, I can completely relate to that feeling of nervousness.

“This is important. Your kid can’t afford to waste a year. For a lot of parents, it is really scary.”

The steps Piedmont is taking, however scary, are steps in the right direction, said Jackson, who left her teaching job to become an instructional coach for the rest of the school district. She said she intends to bring the model at Piedmont to neighboring schools. It wasn’t a leap she took without supporting evidence, she said.

The school reported drops last year in its number of suspensions and disciplinary referrals. Out-of-school suspensions fell 86 percent from the year before, Gerdes said.

Jackson and other teachers said students seemed more engaged in the classroom and better able to grasp concepts, at least anecdotally.

And the trends taking place at Piedmont are the same trends the school district recently has been attempting to bring to its other campuses.

Many of the questions posed to Jackson, she said, stem from parents not fully understanding the changes and the reasons behind them. Some of the new programs might be slow to take effect, Jackson noted, and teachers and students require time to adjust. Gerdes called the upcoming school year a chance to “strengthen the work we began (last year).”

“I think, as we go on, parents are going to see next year that all of this was worth it,” Jackson said. “There’s been a lot of talk about what’s going on at Piedmont. I think parents are waiting to see.”

‘Change is good’

When recess rolls around on Thursdays, Scott said the kids hurry down the stairs to the school store and yell, “It’s Thursday! Yes!” It’s a rare time when teachers might overlook yelling in the hallways.

Scott said she is trying to expand the store’s inventory for this fall. Last year, supply couldn’t keep pace with demand.

Running the store requires more effort than first thought, Scott admits. She has to duck away from work for a few hours each Thursday, and recess broken apart by grade means a steady flow of kids.

Teachers have pitched in by volunteering their time at the store, and Scott said the administration also has been supportive — the lone stipulation being a ban on the sale of anything that might interfere with learning.

“We didn’t want them to be distracted,” Scott said.

When school resumes Tuesday, for the first time at Piedmont, students will be greeted their first week back by a wagon lugging toy trucks and novelty pens.

It’s a scene Scott said she hasn’t always been able to picture.

“Where Piedmont is heading is a fabulous place,” she said. “Sometimes, change is good.”

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