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Curt Tryggestad has spent the first two months of his tenure with Eden Prairie public schools surveying the landscape and getting to know the people around him. And so far, the new superintendent likes what he hears.
"They just want us to be successful, and they're doing everything in their power to make it that way," Tryggestad said.
After an exhaustive national search, the Eden Prairie school board in March selected Tryggestad, the superintendent of the Little Falls School District, as its new leader. He started his job on July 2.
Tryggestad replaced Melissa Krull, the superintendent who ignited controversy when she spearheaded a school boundary change that was done in part to balance poverty levels among the district's elementary students. The move divided the community, spurred heated conversations about race and ultimately led to Krull's departure.
In talking with community members, Tryggestad said it's obvious that emotions are still raw from the ordeal, but he doesn't see his role as that of a "glad hander."
"The best thing I can do is to be open, honest and make myself available to everyone and try to promote the good things that are going on in Eden Prairie," he said.
That list is long, he said. During the short time he's been with the district, he's been most impressed with teachers and staff, the quality of programs the district offers and the level of support he's been shown by board members.
He cited in particular the work the district has done to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
This spring, the Minnesota Department of Education recognized Forest Hills and Prairie View elementaries as "reward schools," the highest designation given to schools that receive federal poverty aid. Under the state's new accountability system, the designation means the schools were outperforming others when it comes to academic proficiency, growth and closing the gap.
The recognition is for progress made during the two years prior to the boundary changes, 2009-10 and 2010-11.
"In the closing-the-gap work that's been done, I think if you put that in comparison to districts like us, whether it's in the state or the nation, I think it would rank very well or better from what I've seen," he said. "Whenever you can move groups of kids, cells of kids, at more than 3 percent per year, I think you've really done something."
School board members say Tryggestad's transition into the top leadership role in the district has been seamless. In fact, some say there's a surge in energy within the administration building that's transforming the culture.
"I feel like we got exactly the kind of leader we thought we were getting," said Ranee Jacobus, the board chairwoman. "Curt is very genuine, very committed to children, very committed to his colleagues, very committed to all the stakeholders."
Tryggestad will be inheriting roles in several initiatives the board launched before his employment, such as a long-term planning process.
"The more information we get, the better," Tryggestad said of the process. "I've always philosophically believed that schools should be a reflection of their communities. And each community is going to have unique priorities and values."
One district priority that Tryggestad also is likely to influence is the future expansion of the use of such personal learning devices as laptops and iPads. Administrators are currently reviewing the district's technology needs and thinking about how they want to use such devices in the future.
In Little Falls, Tryggestad oversaw an initiative that made iPads available for all students in the fifth through 12th grades, a move that has helped cement Little Falls' reputation as a statewide leader in technology.
"Eden Prairie is getting a student-centered educator who believes very strongly that technology can be used a resource, as a core vehicle, in a student's experience in schools," said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, an organization for which Tryggestad has served as a board member.
Before his work in Little Falls, Tryggestad, 54, was the superintendent at Esko public schools from 2003 to '06. Before that, he was a secondary principal at Pine City public schools. He is also a former band director and plays both the tuba and string bass.
Tryggestad will retain some connections to north central Minnesota, since he'll be shuttling back and forth between Eden Prairie and Cloquet, where his wife, Cathy, is a special education director for the Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative.
In the coming weeks, Tryggestad said he's looking forward to getting to know more teachers, parents and students. He'll also continue to unravel the inner machinations of the school district.
"There are so many things you have to know, the facts, the processes [of a new school district]," he said. "The interesting part is figuring out how they work differently, how they connect differently, in a larger district."
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469