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New Riverside principal sets goals for coming years

Jill Bjorge served as a teacher, literacy coach and literacy coordinator at Brainerd Public Schools before becoming the principal at Riverside Elementary this year.

Woman sits at table
Jill Bjorge sits in her office at Riverside Elementary School Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, while discussing her goals for the upcoming year. She is in her first year as principal at Riverside after working as a teacher, literacy coach and literacy coordinator in the district.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Jill Bjorge wants everyone at Riverside Elementary to feel like they belong.

That goal was evident through the matching shirts her staffers wore to greet students and families on the first day of school, and it’s evident in the goals she laid out for her first year at the school.

As the new principal of the Brainerd elementary school, Bjorge hopes to encourage safe, fun learning environments that will allow students to carry positive habits with them at the end of the term and be able to remember the small moments throughout the school year.

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“It’s important for me, for my students, to know that I genuinely love and care about them,” Bjorge said during an interview Friday, Sept. 9, in her office. “It was important for me in the classroom, and I know it’s important for the teachers here, for their students to know that we genuinely care about each and every student and that when they need us, even if it’s through an email, we’re here for them.”

And Bjorge is looking forward to being there for the students and teachers at Riverside, as she calls upon her classroom teacher roots and years as a literacy coach in the district to ensure the best possible learning experience.

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Originally an elementary school teacher, Bjorge has worked with students of every age from birth up to fifth grade.

“So when I was offered this position, I was truly ecstatic,” she said.

That’s because it meant her career had come full circle. Her first job in the district was as a kindergarten teacher at Riverside in 2000. Now, one of those kindergarten students is beginning her first year as a first grade teacher at the same school, offering Bjorge a glimpse of how those young minds she helped to mold so many years ago turned out.

The love of working with those little learners is what got her into the profession 23 years ago, even though she originally envisioned herself opening a day care or early childhood center. Her dad, however, encouraged her to have a degree to fall back on if need be, drawing her to the teaching field.

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While attending St. Cloud State University, Bjorge started her days off as a paraprofessional at an early childhood center and finished out the night after class working in the canteen at the St. Cloud Penitentiary. The combination of working with little kids and conversing with adult inmates developed Bjorge’s belief in the extreme importance of literacy.

“That was probably one of my first glimpses into that world and going, ‘OK, literacy is really important. Being able to read is critical,’” she said.

Exploring a job fair after college took Bjorge out to a third grade classroom in Las Vegas for her first year of teaching. After developing a reading curriculum to allow herself to meet the needs of the wide range of students and their abilities, Bjorge was getting ready to tackle the next subjects on her list, when her principal told her she should think about becoming an administrator.

“I was like, ‘I’m 21 years old. I’m not interested in being an administrator,’” she said.

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But upon landing her dream job as a kindergarten teacher at Riverside the following year, the idea of taking on a higher role started blooming even more, with the help of then-Principal Cathy (Engler) Nault.

“She was always a huge advocate for me,” Bjorge said of Nault, who encouraged her to take the next step in her career.After six years of teaching kindergarten and the desire to be home raising her own children, Bjorge looked to pursue her administrative degree while teaching evening classes in human relations and parent/child relationships at Southwest Minnesota State University.

She eventually came back to the district as a literacy coach and second grade teacher before moving up to literacy coordinator for all six elementary schools.

Exterior shot of the entrance of Riverside Elementary School.
Riverside Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, in Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“During that time, I also became reading recovery trained and taught that intervention for one year just to know more about that process of teaching children to read,” she said. “And then, towards the end of my time being literacy coordinator, I knew I wanted to be back in one building with teachers and kids.”

After training new people to replace her, Bjorge went back to the classroom, teaching fourth grade at Nisswa Elementary and then fifth grade at Forestview Middle School.

But through her time teaching college students, Bjorge realized she liked working with adults as well as kids.

Now, she gets to do both on a daily basis.

“I love kids. I love teachers,” she said. “I love learning, so I feel as though we have to model what we want others to live by. And the more we learn, hopefully the better and the bigger contribution we can make in society.”

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That’s why Bjorge and her staff at Riverside developed a comprehensive improvement plan outlining six goals they want to achieve in the next three to five years, including a co-teaching model for collaboration among special education, general education and Title I teachers, and a restorative practices approach to deal with certain student behaviors.

“Here at Riverside, we believe that when a child makes a mistake, they have an opportunity to have a logical consequence, but then also opportunities to have conversations to repair their relationships and learn some new strategies for some different opportunities for dealing with difficult situations,” she said.

With their priorities in tow, Bjorge has faith she and her staffers at Riverside can make the most of the year ahead as they take the first few weeks to make sure students feel as comfortable as possible in their environment and get used to the daily routines.

“Building their confidence, allowing them to learn that this is a safe place to make mistakes. This is a great place to take risks and raise your hand even though you might be wrong,” she said. “So really, all of those intrinsic pieces we want in place so that they can be lifelong learners, not just for this year.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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