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Two Perham school leaders, Anderson and Zimmerman, celebrate a decade with the district

Perham Public Schools Superintendent Mitch Anderson and Perham High School Principal Ehren Zimmerman reflect on the changes and trends they've seen in education since they were both hired into the district 10 years ago.

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High school Principal Ehren Zimmerman, left, and Superintendent Mitch Anderson, right, are celebrating 10 years with the Perham-Dent School District. (Rebecca Mitchell / Perham Focus)

Proud. That’s what Perham-Dent Public School District leaders Mitch Anderson and Ehren Zimmerman say about the Perham community and its schools after 10 years with the district.

Both Anderson, who's the superintendent, and Zimmerman, the high school principal, transitioned to Perham from smaller districts. Anderson was returning to his Frazee roots, and Zimmerman was shifting over from another district in Otter Tail County.

When they started in 2011, Perham's enrollment sat at around 1,200 students. Today, it's grown to 1,550. There have been many signs of growth and progress like this over the past decade — the introduction of new technologies, the start of new academic and extracurricular programs, the construction of a state-of-the-art new high school.

Anderson and Zimmerman have had front-row seats to it all, cheering for and influencing these changes, and at times directly developing and implementing change themselves.

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Trisha Marczak/FOCUS Ehren Zimmerman (left) is taking over as Perham High School's new principal, while Mitch Anderson has stepped into the superintendent role with the district. Both are looking forward to moving ahead with fresh leadership.

Zimmerman says Perham has long been a community that people are proud to be from. And the schools consistently show their strengths of academics, fine arts, athletics and activities. The size of the district, he and Anderson say, is a 'best of both worlds' situation — not too big, not too small.

“Teachers connect with kids like you see in a small school, but yet it’s big enough that you’ve got opportunities that some small schools can’t provide — you know, a lot more activities, more programs, just opportunities for kids to be a part of something,” Anderson said.

They stepped into their roles at an interesting time. The district was on the brink of a turning point, with the school board and a community of 'Vote Yes' voices working hard to get a building referendum passed. The district was also rebuilding financially, after years of painful budget cuts that caused losses to staff and programming.

Just a few years into their positions, in 2015, the district's books were getting back into the black, and the school community was celebrating the passage of the referendum they fought for.

“The community support here for education has been incredible from the time we started,” Zimmerman said. “There was always quality education taking place. It didn’t matter which administrative meetings I sat down to, there were always positives coming out of Perham.”

The two jumped right into referendum business when they started, and also began expanding opportunities for kids to use the latest technologies in the classroom. At the time, iPads were new and eye-opening for school staff, students and families, and Anderson and Zimmerman, along with other district leaders, pushed to have one for every K-12 student in 2012.

Now, students “wouldn’t know what education is like if it was only textbook-driven,” Anderson noted.

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Second Grader Levi Suhl works on a coding game during STEM class at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School. (photo Kim Brasel/FOCUS).

Zimmerman says tech tools can help students learn life skills, responsibility, respect, self-initiative, and what behaviors are appropriate or not appropriate. During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology was proven even more important as an educational tool, as distance learning was paramount. The schools worked through technology glitches , added parent-teacher conferences online, and hosted not only classes but also ceremonies and events virtually.

Building the new high school

Zimmerman describes the school district as the “heartbeat” of the community. A strong heartbeat comes from a strong heart, and a strong heart comes with good care from the community.

Ten years ago, Perham's high school, middle school and elementary school were all due for some improvements. The middle and elementary schools needed additional classrooms for a growing student body, along with updates and remodeling, including a new gym and preschool area. The nearly 100-year-old high school was in need of repair and was inefficient, and would be costly to continue to maintain — it was time for a new high school.

Planning for that new school brought opportunities for better, more flexible spaces for modern teaching and learning styles, and allowed specialty programs like career tech education to have the room they needed to stretch and grow. The school design and construction process took years, and there were a thousand big and little decisions to make along the way. Anderson and Zimmerman were there through it all, consulting other school and project leaders, asking and answering questions, and communicating with the public.

When it was all said and done, and the 158,000-square-foot school opened its doors in the fall of 2018, hundreds of people came from far and wide to tour it. It was widely praised as one of the best high schools in the state, a prime example of form and function, with student learning first in mind.

“It feels good knowing that we’re sitting here now doing the things that we told people we planned to do with it,” Anderson said of how the finished school is meeting or exceeding expectations shared during the referendum process. “I’ve had people open up to me, saying that they didn’t vote 'Yes' for this, but after they see what an impact it’s had — not just on our kids and our staff but the community as a whole — they get it now.”

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Caden Schossow, left, and Devin Meyer make custom cribbage boards on the CNC mill in the Career Tech Center at Perham High School. The boards feature custom engravings and are being mass produced by the school's new Jacket Manufacturing class. (Marie Johnson / Perham Focus)

Zimmerman and Anderson say they're proud of how educators took the time to evaluate aspects of education to better support students, introducing concepts like period days and elective courses.

“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of when you walk in here (the high school)," Zimmerman says. "It wasn’t just administration and a few board members that sat down…but ultimately there was a large community voice to build this building. It’s the community’s building, and we get the opportunity to be able to help lead and guide young adults in this facility.”

Preparing students for life after high school

From trap shooting to fishing, robotics, Knowledge Bowl, college-level course offerings, an expanded art program and more, student attendance and class participation improve when new academic and extracurricular programs are added, Anderson said. While they once heard a student describe his school days as “same soup, just reheated,” now, Zimmerman and Anderson say, school is a dynamic place where kids prepare for their futures in a more direct, hands-on way — whether they plan to go to a two-year or four-year college, or right into the workforce.

“We’re always looking to try to meet the needs and the wants of our kids,” Anderson says. “For a long time those programs were either cut or didn’t exist, and we had a lot of kids that were kind of drifting through that, who didn’t have a team to belong to or something to get excited about.”

Program offerings and academic opportunities today support a range of careers. Students helped install miles of wiring as the new high school was being built, for example; others are taking classes that pertain to plumbing and HVAC systems. There's a long list of specialties. Students don’t have to fit the traditional school structure to shine in the community, Anderson and Zimmerman say.

‘Time is flying’

Looking back on his 10 years as superintendent, Anderson says the years are marked by different themes: the high school opening in 2018, preceded by construction, design and planning; the referendum vote before that, and preparing and educating people on the referendum. More recent years have been highlighted by the pandemic and the start of long-range facilities planning.

“I don’t know if the next 10 years is going to... (be anything like the) previous 10 years have been,” Anderson said. “One consistent factor that’s always lead to Perham’s success — academically, athletically, fine arts, everything — is the people that we hire.”

For Anderson and Zimmerman, the most joy comes from seeing students continue to grow.

“It’s pretty awesome to listen and watch when someone pops back in and you ask, 'What are you up to today?' And that can be working right here and leading some operation right here in town, or that could be who knows where. But they always point back to their roots," Zimmerman said. "Which is, to me, the most...prideful piece of working here, is listening to those stories."

Related Topics: EDUCATIONPERHAMPEOPLE
Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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