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A new face greeting students and parents at Riverside Elementary School

Riverside third graders Danielle Ahmann (left) and Lexi Swanson hug their new pr

For Jodi Kennedy, the excitement felt on the first day of school was similar to that felt by the more than 620 kindergarten through fourth graders at Riverside Elementary School. A new school year, and for Kennedy, a new school.

“I think I felt a lot of the same butterflies that some of these kids felt,” said Kennedy with a smile on day two of the 2012-13 school year. “And the first day went really well, it was awesome and went better than I expected, to be honest. Usually the first day is a little crazy, especially being the first day somewhere new is always a little unsettling but the staff here is amazing.”

Walking into the school’s cafeteria it seems as though Kennedy’s face isn’t as new as it actually is, with young student’s rushing to her for a hello and to share the details of their morning so far when given the chance.

After tying shoes, wiping scraped cheeks and reminding kids to keep their hands to themselves while waiting in line, it was then Kennedy’s turn to share her own details of the path that led her to her first year as principal at Riverside.

Originally from Detroit Lakes, Kennedy said her teaching aspirations were in her blood.

“I come from a long family of teachers,” said the 40-year-old Kennedy. “My dad was a teacher of ninth grade social studies and my mom taught special education at the school. And I have aunts and uncles who teach, plus I always made my brother play school with me.

“But really, it was something I saw modeled and I saw the relationship my dad had with the kids and saw how important he was. I just always knew it was what I was going to do.”

Graduating with a teaching degree from Concordia-Moorhead University, Kennedy started substitute teaching at Sartell Middle School for two years before beginning her teaching career in Perham for five years. She then moved to Fargo for a position at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felt, just outside of Fargo-Moorhead, for eight years.

It wasn’t until hearing suggestions and being encouraged by relatives and friends to “speak for the classroom teacher and be a leader” that Kennedy considered becoming a principal. For four years, she went back to graduate school at Moorhead State University — while still teaching full-time and coaching — and earned her masters in reading and finishing the requirements to become a certified K12 principal.

“It was kind of crazy but it was at that point that I knew it was something I wanted to do,” said Kennedy.

Her first job as reigning leader was at an elementary school in Granite Falls from 2010-12 — a position she said that taught her a lot and reminded her why she was passionate about this career.

“The school I was principal at in Granite Falls was kind of a struggling school and was, actually, under the state’s new rating system (MMR) labeled as a Focus school,” said Kennedy of the designation given by the Minnesota Department of Education to the 10 percent of Title I schools making the biggest contribution to the state’s achievement gap. “So we knew there was some great growth needed. And we did take great strides in catching our students up and trying to provide the best education that we could and really did make some good growth.”

Kennedy said at first when the opportunity came to leave Granite Falls for different opportunities, she wasn’t quickly swayed, wanting to stay and continue to help the school she was at. Yet, Kennedy said the desire to get back closer to home was ideal.

“My hope was always to get back toward family, toward the lakes,” she said. “And I had heard about Brainerd’s good reputation of education and some really awesome things happening here. So I tossed my name in and here I am.”

Filling in the vacant spot left by longtime Riverside principal Cathy Nault, Kennedy said it was a whirlwind summer, finishing up first in Granite Falls in June and moving to the area on July 27 before starting on Aug. 1.

“While I am here, I want to continue the great tradition and education that is already so apparent here in this school and community,” said Kennedy. “There are some areas that I have noticed I would like to possibly see change to make things maybe a bit safer, but for now I am just observing things and seeing what’s going on.

“I am a believer if we can build the right foundation here (in elementary school) and a love for learning when they are young, we will see the effects when they get older.”

And it’s that belief that Kennedy said is her most important job and the reason she loves being principal at such a young age. While her and her husband Sean’s only child currently is a German shorthair named Max, the motherly act of her job as principal is not lost on her.

“I do have kids,” Kennedy said. “I have 622 of them here every day.”

JESSI PIERCE, staff writer, may be reached at 855-5859 or Follow her on Twitter at (@jessi_pierce).