Career devoted to children

Principal Pat Midtgaard picks volunteers to walk the walk-a-thon

GILROY
– In 2003-04, Gilroy Unified School District will have a new
leader for its youngest and, according to state test scores, most
dramatically improved school.
After three decades in education, Antonio Del Buono Principal
Pat Midtgaard announced last week she’ll retire at the end of this
school year.
GILROY – In 2003-04, Gilroy Unified School District will have a new leader for its youngest and, according to state test scores, most dramatically improved school.

After three decades in education, Antonio Del Buono Principal Pat Midtgaard announced last week she’ll retire at the end of this school year.

Parents, students and staff of Gilroy’s public schools are no strangers to change in this reform-minded district. But on Monday, ADB teachers, staff and parents acknowledged they’ll be navigating more uncharted waters next year.

“We’re certainly happy for her, but she will be missed,” said ADB attendance clerk Robin Jones, echoing the sentiments of others who commented for this story.

The district plans to have Midtgaard’s replacement named before the end of the current school year said Superintendent Edwin Diaz, who called her “one of the most organized, competent and instructionally focused individuals I’ve ever worked with.”

“The Antonio Del Buono principal’s job is an attractive position, but it’s also going to be tough to fill Pat’s shoes,” Diaz said last week.

In her 29 years as a full-time GUSD employee, observers say Midtgaard has established herself as a hard-working and highly respected leader who’s earned people’s love with her compassion and sense of humor.

“She’s always been a fair person, with the kids and as a boss,” Jones said. “And even though she’s the kind of person you listen to for her wisdom, she’s also a lot of fun. Pat just likes to laugh.”

For parent Sherida Brinson, Midtgaard was a positive, bright light in a sad and dark time. Brinson, an active mom and the school’s parent representative at the district, lived a parent’s nightmare last year – her 8-year-old son Myles succumbed to leukemia.

“There was always a warm feeling from her,” Brinson said. “Everyone there, the entire school, showed compassion and had warmth. She’s there with a desire to make kids learn, but she understands the social and emotional aspect to school, too.”

Looking at any block of time in Midtgaard’s career, the veteran educator has shown she’s keenly aware of how student learning fits within a bigger educational picture. On several occasions, Midtgaard has served on district committees charged with recommending naturally controversial changes in curriculum and attendance boundaries.

Once, Midtgaard even supported the closure of her school, San Ysidro Elementary, a sparsely populated Pacheco Pass Highway site that the district believed was too far from the urban growth areas of Gilroy.

“It’s part of being a team player,” Midtgaard, a former collegiate tennis and field hockey player, said of her expanded roles.

Four years ago, Midtgaard’s teamwork paid off in a major way. She was named principal of Antonio Del Buono Elementary School and charged with opening the district’s newest and state-of-the-art campus.

“Looking back at my career I’d have to say (opening ADB) was one of my proudest accomplishments,” Midtgaard said. “It was an interesting and challenging experience and I learned a lot from it.

“I know more about things like classroom furniture than I ever thought I’d know.”

Midtgaard’s impact on the school didn’t stop at deciding what type of desks and chalkboards to buy. It was felt in the curriculum, too.

Based on annual test scores, ADB has responded to the state’s new accountability demands more successfully than any other school in Gilroy.

ADB students improved their scores by 60 points this year, about two times better than any other school in the district. The improvement is crucial because the GUSD wants to have 90 percent of its students performing at grade level in math and reading. Only half the district’s students have reached that mark so far.

“Our school population is different now, so I’m not sure we can repeat that this year,” Midtgaard said. “Hopefully, we can still improve.”

If ADB students don’t make another impressive leap forward, it won’t be because of Midtgaard and her teachers, says ADB literacy facilitator Gondie Chavez.

Chavez, who has worked under Midtgaard in previous assignments, is filled with anecdotes about her boss’ dedication to the professional development that ultimately translates into improved student scores.

“She doesn’t just promote staff development, she gets in there and does it,” Chavez said. “She attends the seminars, she models lessons, she doesn’t expect the staff to do anything she wouldn’t do.”

Chavez, whose job involves passing along the latest educational techniques to other teachers, says many times Midtgaard has read the latest research before anyone at the school – including herself.

“She’s a real thinker,” Chavez said. “She’s always reading. She’ll ponder issues and come back with ideas.

“It isn’t about doing a job for her, it’s about improving a craft.”

Midtgaard began learning her craft in Greeley, Colo., at what is now called University of Northern Colorado, where she graduated with physical education and journalism degrees in the mid 1960s.

As a youngster, Midtgaard longed to live in California. She ventured west after college, eventually landing physical education and journalism teaching jobs at the secondary level in San Leandro and Morgan Hill. But it was during a four-year stint as a substitute for GUSD that she realized her preference to teach younger children.

In 1974, she signed her first full-time teaching contract with GUSD, landing work at El Roble Elementary School. For the next 15 years, Midtgaard took elementary school assignments throughout the district while working on her master’s degree in administration and raising three daughters – all successful GUSD students and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduates – with her husband Lorens.

“I wanted to look at another aspect of education and I’m glad that I did,” Mitdgaard said. “A lot of (teaching and administrative work) is about organizing people, and I never had a lot of trouble doing that.”

Midtgaard and her husband have set no firm timeline on their retirement plans, but one of her goals is to take an extended trip to Mexico and study Spanish. Midtgaard said she is also considering serving as a part-time educational consultant.

“Sometimes peopIe think you can lose touch with students when you’re not in the classroom, but you can have a lot of impact on students if you stay in touch with the curriculum,” she said.

Midtgaard doesn’t get to do as much teaching as she would like, but she has found ways to impact daily learning at her school. Each morning Midtgaard takes a grade level into the school’s multi-purpose room for a “morning message” – a time where children sing patriotic songs, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and get recognized for birthdays and other accomplishments.

She also does a book-of-the-month program where she picks a book the entire school reads, explaining in a note to teachers what she gained from the book and why she thinks it is an important read.

There’s not much doubt Midtgaard’s presence in the GUSD will be missed, and there’s even less doubt it will be forgotten. At ADB’s open house last week, Midtgaard saw evidence of that firsthand when she was approached by a parent who was a former sixth-grade student of hers.

“He told me, ‘You made us memorize word for word the Gettysburg Address and I’ve never forgotten it,’ ” Midtgaard said. “He went on to recite it in front of me verbatim.

“It’s nice to know you’ve made that kind of impression on someone’s life.”

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