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Reforms under way at Perpich Center, along with continued state scrutiny

Perpich Center
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Six months into his new role as the executive director of the Perpich Center, Curt Tryggestad is hopeful that the agency — along with the high school that it operates — will be restored to fulfill its original twofold mission.

Back in the late '80s, not long after the Perpich Center for Arts Education had opened, Curt Tryggestad tapped into the state agency’s arts education outreach resources. As a new band teacher in Hinckley, he needed help refining his curriculum so that he knew what, exactly, his band students should be mastering at each grade level.

A few years later, as a principal in the Pine City Public Schools district, he went back to the agency, asking it to send out a content specialist to assist his K-12 staff in building a comprehensive music program.

Tryggestad went on to become a superintendent — of Esko Public Schools, then Little Falls Community Schools and, most recently, of Eden Prairie Public Schools. But when the Perpich Center underwent a highly critical review by state lawmakers last year, he felt compelled to get involved in saving the agency that he had leaned on during his years as an educator in Greater Minnesota.

“I had received help from the Perpich Center, so I knew the value,” he said.

Now six months into his new role as the executive director of the Perpich Center, he’s hopeful that the agency — along with the high school that it operates — will be restored to fulfill its original twofold mission: to support arts education, statewide, by operating a two-year arts high school and by serving as a resource for art teachers.

Over the years, he’s seen the number of content specialists employed by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) slowly dwindle. So proposals to have MDE absorb the arts education outreach work currently assigned to the Perpich Center, he says, seem impractical.

“[The Perpich Center] is the last vestige of the support targeted towards those arts areas,” he said.

Likewise, he believes the on-site high school operated by the Perpich Center still fulfills an important niche in cultivating arts talent across the state, offering students — especially those from smaller districts in Greater Minnesota — an opportunity to study under arts experts in an immersive setting.

To those who suggest that today's students have better access to post-secondary enrollment (PSEO) options that can serve as pathways to more specialized, advanced arts courses for high schoolers, Tryggestad contends that the Perpich Arts High School, which has a dormitory on site, offers something entirely different.

Curt Tryggestad
Curt Tryggestad

“There’s nothing like coming here and having your academics half your day, then being able to spend three to four hours of your day in your art area, exploring it and honing it,“ he said. “The school serves a very specific population with very specific needs.”

As Tryggestad and school board members continue to check off reforms on their to-do list — a long list compiled by state auditors when they presented the findings of both a financial and a program audit of the Perpich Center at the start of 2017 — some state legislators have indicated that the agency’s future survival is still very much in question.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, chair of the House education finance committee, authored a bill last session that would have dissolved the agency. After visiting its campus in Golden Valley this fall, and talking with Tryggestad, she’s still not convinced it’s worth reviving.

“I can’t say I’ve done a 180 from my original position,” she said. “But I do want to hear about the reforms and the changes that have been made and hear what the status is of Perpich at some point this year in a hearing.”

‘Going back to the basics’

Prior to Tryggestad coming on board to help lead the Perpich turnaround, the board of directors — a group of 15, including nine newly appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton shortly before the release of the audits — had already started making some key staffing changes. That included hiring a new high school principal and a new admissions coordinator.

In his first few months, Tryggestad has been focused on continuing to build out his team in a strategic way. For instance, he brought on Christopheraaron Deanes — a well-known artist in the Twin Cities, with a background in restorative justice  — to serve as a dorm director.

“I think we've addressed some of the concerns with the dorms and what not by trying to have someone who can bridge that gap between where they live and where they learn,” he said.

In terms of teaching staff, he says there hasn’t been much turnover since last year. And once they fill the music specialist position in the next month or so, he says they’ll have a full team of content specialists supporting arts education outreach initiatives “for the first time in several years.”

Recounting some of the other changes that were already under way by the time he was hired, Tryggestad says they’ve done a lot to address complaints over a lack of leadership transparency. In his role, he’s improving internal communications to repair trust and improve staff morale. In regard to governance, they’ve added board members’ contact information to the website, ensured there’s a public comment portion of board meetings, updated board policies and made sure all board members are familiar with open meeting laws.

“They are functioning much more like a public board should — taking input as it comes,” he said, noting they’ve been posting board meetings and minutes online as well.

Next month, the board will finalize a new strategic plan, in which members realigned their goals to better match the agency’s responsibilities that are spelled out in state statute. Next up, he says he’s looking forward to combing through the budget, line by line.

“[We’re] just going back to the basics,” he said. “Until we have our foundation as an agency and as an organization, you can’t go anywhere. That’s how I’m approaching it. But I feel really good about where we’re headed.”

Rebuilding enrollment, reputation

His load has been made a bit lighter by the fact that the Perpich Center is no longer operating Crosswinds, an arts and science magnet school located in Woodbury that had been badly mismanaged, according to the audits. The magnet school has since closed and the St. Paul Public Schools district is looking to buy the school building.

With just one school left to manage, Tryggestad says he and his team have been focusing on boosting enrollment without lowering admissions standards — another concern raised in the audits. That mission includes recruiting more talented students from Greater Minnesota who want to study visual arts, music, theater, or some other arts discipline in an immersive high school setting.

This year, they started off with 161 students, Tryggestad said — and the rural-urban breakdown isn’t a perfect split, but there is student representation from every congressional district. Enrollment always tends to drop off a bit during the first semester, he added, as some students decide this very specialized school setting is not a good fit for them. But this year's enrollment numbers look nothing like last year’s, when “there was a huge exodus” after the release of the audits, he said.

In an effort to rebuild the high school’s reputation and boost enrollment, the new admissions coordinator has spent time this fall visiting schools and arts organizations in more than 60 counties. Tryggestad himself has been meeting with superintendents across the state to boost awareness of the Perpich Arts High School. He’s also utilizing his extensive professional network to help get the word out that “we’re still open for business and here’s the type of student who would benefit from Perpich.” Currently he’s serving as president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators; and he formerly served as president of the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

Perpich staff have also made efforts to strengthen — and in some cases, establish — relationships with other educator organizations across the state, as well as with arts organizations.

“If you do the right things and you do it consistently, students will come back here in droves,” he said, noting the thing that concerns him is that the highly publicized audits took a sizable toll on the school’s reputation. “My hope, request, desire is that especially the Legislature will understand we may not be able to bounce back with the number of kids right away. ... The thing I can control is outreach. That’s maybe the strategy going into this.”

Arts outreach overhaul

After reviewing the three primary arts education outreach initiatives currently advertised by the Perpich Center, Tryggestad says leadership has decided to sunset two by the end of June: both its K-12 teacher professional development program and its three regional centers, currently located in the Elk River, Albert Lea and Duluth school districts.

Planning to replace these two programs with an outreach initiative that better aligns to state statute and that reaches more educators across the state, he says they’re currently in the process of migrating these resources to a new home: the nine well-established Minnesota Service Cooperatives that serve as resource hubs for schools and communities.

“We have a commitment from them that will allow us — much like MDE — to use their facilities and technology as a hub for our outreach to every part of the state,” Tryggestad said.  

With this expanded footprint, he says the Perpich Center will be better positioned to connect its newly rebuilt arts content specialist team with educators anywhere in the state who are in search of professional development training or curriculum consultation. Likewise, he’s eager to establish networks for teachers who have expressed an interest in having an opportunity to connect with their peers.

This sort of outreach is valuable — especially for younger teachers who may be working in isolation in smaller, more rural districts — because even when they’re fully licensed to teach a particular subject, they’re still adjusting to a workload that their college program didn’t fully prepare them for, one that includes everything from classroom management to learning to work with school administration.

“That’s where, I think, our young teachers become overwhelmed,” he said, noting many art teachers don’t have the advantage of working on a content team. “If you’re the K-12 visual arts instructor in Blackduck, you don’t have a lot of places to turn to for support.”

Old Perpich Center library space
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
With structural improvements to the room that had housed the Perpich Center's library collection, new leadership plans to reclaim the space.

Addressing the Perpich Center’s third outreach initiative — the Turnaround Arts program — Tryggestad says leadership won’t be involved with this nationwide program moving forward. Since it’s not dependent on the Center’s involvement, he says they’re hoping to identify another local organization that would be interested in picking up this program, which currently benefits seven schools in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Lastly, Perpich leadership plans to place more emphasis on sharing material housed in the Center’s library collection. This summer, they’ll be moving the collection back to its original room in the lower level of the High School building. It had all been boxed up and moved to another building on campus after the room flooded a couple years ago. The renovated library should be open for students and teachers to browse and check out resources from this summer. Likewise, the adhoc library storage space will be freed up so the Perpich Center can host on-site trainings for teachers.

“I can comfortably say that everything in both the financial and the program reports have been addressed,” Tryggestad said. “There are always things that remain in motion. But I feel that we have met the requirement.”

Legislators visit

In the past couple of months, Tryggestad has welcomed a few different legislators to campus to tour the facilities and hear about the changes currently under way. Gearing up for session, there’s still quite a bit of interest among lawmakers in both parties in following up on the status of Perpich in the coming months.

Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, a member of the House Education Innovation Policy committee who’s played an active role pushing for reforms in the interest of restoring the Center to fulfill its statutory obligations, recently met with Tryggestad and the board chair.

“I’m really pleased with their efforts ... to respond to the [Office of the Legislative Auditor’s] report — which was fair and needed to happen,” she said. “I think they’re making great strides and accomplishing what we want them to do, what we’ve asked them to do.”

In her opinion, the Perpich Arts High School hasn’t become obsolete. Even though there are other arts-focused charter and magnet schools today, she says none have the housing and “the variety, the depth of education standards" that the school provides. And she doesn’t believe the Legislature would appropriately fund arts outreach if it were to be absorbed by the state Department of Education.

Ward and her colleagues who’d like to see the Perpich Center salvaged will be facing some tough resistance from their Republican counterparts who question not only whether the Center can be better managed but also whether this state agency even plays a necessary role in today’s education landscape.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the House education innovation policy committee, has perhaps been the most adamant about moving things in this direction.

“I decided not to visit because I am just so committed to closing the school and moving students into PSEO options, which, I think, will offer them so much more,” she said. “At these higher education institutions, we have some of the best fine arts, visual arts … whether it’s at the University of Minnesota, Concordia Moorhead, St. Thomas.”

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
This year, the Perpich Center started off with 161 students — and the rural-urban breakdown isn’t a perfect split, but there is student representation from every congressional district.

In terms of the arts outreach work currently assigned to the Perpich Center, she says that work “can be moved to the Department of Education very easily,” and managed with the support of the state Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which already receives Legacy dollars from the state.

Loon is familiar with Tryggestad’s leadership abilities, from his five years of working as superintendent in her home district. She says the decision to hire him “was a very sound one by the board.” However, she’s still not convinced the Center has much of a future. She anticipates she and her colleagues won’t be able to conduct a full review this year, as many of the leadership and structural changes are still relatively new. But they will still take time to review the recent reforms and continue the larger debate over whether there’s even a need for a place like the Perpich Center. 

“For a school that’s been around as long as Perpich has been, it makes me wonder why those relationships aren’t there, why they’re not longstanding,” she said. “But I do want to be fair about it. So if we have a hearing, I think that’s something we’re going to want to know: what’s being done.”

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