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'I've loved the opportunity': Outgoing Perham elementary principal reflects on her years at the school

Heart of the Lakes Elementary School Principal Liz Johnson has been in Perham for three years, leading the school through an unusual amount of change due to the COVID-19 pandemic. June 30 will be her last day in the position.

Liz Johnson, the current principal of Heart of the Lakes Elementary School, smiles inside her office during her last month in Perham.
Liz Johnson, the current principal of Heart of the Lakes Elementary School, smiles inside her office during her last month in Perham.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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PERHAM — Liz Johnson, principal at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School in Perham for the past three years, recently resigned from her position.

She will be taking on the role of principal at Banfield Elementary in Austin, Minnesota. June 30 will be her last day in the Perham role, and she will start her new position in July.

Johnson said a lot has changed in her life in recent years, and she and her husband felt like moving somewhere new was something they needed.

Kindergartners at HOTL Elementary performed a song to say goodbye to their principal during the last week of the school year.

Johnson said she's enjoyed her job despite its busy nature during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has seen a lot of change come from that.

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"I just really had that great opportunity to be able to grow myself as an educator and in a leadership role," Johnson said of her years at HOTL. "The kids are fantastic, and I've loved every minute of getting to know them."

Johnson took the job after she and her husband, elementary school teacher Jeff Johnson, stumbled across the opportunity. She had many years of teaching under her belt, as well as a few years as an assistant principal. She knew the Perham area quite well and had family nearby, so accepting the position just felt right.

"I have just loved the opportunity to be able to be here, and I'm a true believer in, 'You're placed somewhere for a reason,'" she said. "So either somebody's coming toward you that you need, or you're there for someone else, right? It goes both ways."

During her time in Perham, Johnson said, she's found many mentors and people who've helped her along the way. She hopes she's been able to help others, too, as that was her goal all along — especially during the pandemic, which was a time when everyone needed a bit of a helping hand.

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Liz Johnson, and her husband Jeff Johnson, smile in a classroom filled with elementary students during their last month at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School in Perham.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

"The last few years (during the pandemic) have been a traumatic experience for everyone, and in education, in particular," Johnson said. "(The pandemic) just kind of deconstructed a lot of things, and so we had to think a little differently. It revealed some things in our systems we thought were in place but weren't."

For example, while there was already mental health support in place for students, school leaders found that more resources or changes in that area would be helpful during the pandemic. Johnson, alongside other school staff, made it a goal to provide students and their families with extra mental health support and care.

"We have a lot of families that were hurting and a lot of kids who were hurting — a lot of uncertainty and a lot of trauma," Johnson said. "We know that we have more kids who have trauma or that we had families who were in crisis. And it was hard to find some of those kids during COVID. We had a lot of families just kind of disappear."

Last year, the Perham School District added a position for another mental health worker, which Johnson said has been very helpful. At HOTL, they also started wearing shirts every Monday that say, "I'm glad you're here," and they make sure to greet students in the halls so the kids feel welcomed.

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Johnson also emphasized the importance of special education and commented on how impressive those programs are in the Perham School District, especially when it comes to the care of students' mental health. HOTL was recently approved to have a sensory room for kids who need it, and Johnson said she's thrilled to have been a part of that process.

"The support for (special education) has been amazing," she said. "I think I did a good job of impressing upon the school board and the district that…we want to be proactive and make sure the kids have (resources) at a young age."

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Liz Johnson was Principal at Heart of the Lakes Elementary for three years, two of which were during the COVID-19 pandemic. She's enjoyed it, but will be on to a new position in another community at the end of the month.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

"I will tell you, this is my 30th year in education," Johnson added. "I've never been in a school that has all the services that this school provides… If you ever want to know how your community's doing, you just have to look at your school. So if your school's doing well, then you know there's some things that are going well in your community. I'm just so impressed with the support."

With Johnson leaving, the Perham District School Board plans to review applicants for the elementary principal position and discuss future interviews at their next meeting this Wednesday, June 8.

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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