Edgerton principal chosen for national award

A poster of a Hmong general hangs on the wall inside Edgerton Elementary School. Gen. Vang Pao, who led Hmong soldiers against Communist forces in Vietnam, is holding a book, encouraging kids to read.

During a focus group on diversity with parents, one Hmong father said that when he sees the picture of the general, he knows that Edgerton cares about its Hmong population and is showing kids positive role models.

Forty-two percent of Edgerton’s students are students of color. But under Principal John Ahern leadership, school staff tries to ensure that every child feels they belong.

"It all begins with having an outstanding staff," he said. "We have quality teachers and quality support staff. The welcoming atmosphere is because of the people who work here."

But Ahern is a big part of that as well. The U.S. Department of Education and the National Association of Elementary School Principals recently named Ahern as Minnesota’s National Distinguished Principal for 2005.

"It is very nice, especially at this point in my career," said Ahern, who has been the principal at Edgerton for 20 years. "It is very rewarding; I’m honored."

Groundswell of support

Edgerton Elementary, located on Edgerton Street in Maplewood, is one of eight elementary schools in the Roseville Area Schools district.

A few months ago, fellow principals in the district approached Ahern and said they would like to nominate him for the award, and then just over one week later, a group of parents toured the school and asked to meet with him. They told him they, too, wanted to nominate him for the award.

"I was so honored by the fact that my colleagues wanted to nominate me, and then two weeks later, parents asked to nominate me," Ahern said. "I was very honored."

Six people had to submit letters in support of Ahern. Dave O’Connor, the school district’s deputy superintendent and a long-time friend; Maplewood Mayor Bob Cardinal; and Falcon Heights Principal Paul Charest were among them. Others included two teachers and a parent.

In February, Ahern was named one of three finalists. The others were William Burwell, the principal at Horace May Elementary and Solway Elementary in Bemidji, and Bonnie Johnson, the principal at University Avenue Elementary in Anoka.

As a finalist, Ahern advanced to the interviews on May 13.

"I got back to school and started supervising the end of the day, while students were getting on their buses," Ahern said. "When I got back to my office, there was a call waiting for me."

Jean Clark, the national representative for Minnesota, told Ahern he was chosen for the honor.

A ‘rewarding’ career

Although his mother and two sisters were teachers, Ahern never thought he would go into education.

In high school, he recalled, "I had no idea I wanted to be a teacher."

But while in the service during the Vietnam War, Ahern was on a base and "had a lot of time to think." It was then he decided to go into education.

Ahern grew up in the Daytons Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul. He and his friends wanted to go to college, but couldn’t afford to live on campus. So they decided to carpool daily to River Falls, Wis.

"We took turns driving back and for every day," Ahern said.

Ahern taught sixth-graders at a school in Bloomington for four years before moving into an instructional position for two years. Ironically, he was about to be laid off due to budget cuts when he finished his school administration degree.

"As I was being laid off, I began pursuing principal jobs," he said. "I’ve been lucky."

His initial job was as principal at Deep Haven Elementary in Minnetonka. But he and his wife, Janet, and their three daughters had recently moved into a house in Hudson, Wis.

"I drove back and forth (to Minnetonka) during the early 1980s, when the winters were very severe," he said. "We decided to stay in Hudson, so I knew I had to find something closer."

Ahern had known O’Connor, Roseville’s deputy superintendent, from years back. Not only did they play softball together, but Ahern was in O’Connor’s sister’s wedding 30 years ago.

"John represents the best of the best," O’Connor said. "He really looks at things from the students’ and teachers’ perspective before he makes a decision."

Ahern said he is proud of the direction his career has taken.

"I can honestly say that if I had to do it all over again, I certainly would," he said,

Edgerton’s school motto is "It Starts With Me" and its vision is summarized with, "Keeping Children First." Both help "recognize the uniqueness of each student."

"I’ve never forgotten what’s like to be a classroom teacher. That has helped and guided me in being a principal," Ahern said. "It’s been a very rewarding career."

He will qualify for retirement at the end of the school year in 2006, but Ahern said he has not made any decisions yet about stepping down.

"I still enjoy what I’m doing immensely," he said.