By Amanda Dyslin
---- — Twenty years ago, Paul Peterson was a student in Jeff Olson's Social Studies Methods class at Gustavus Adolphus College. It was the start to a long mentorship, and neither could have predicted how closely their careers would be tied.
Olson taught social studies in St. Peter Public Schools, and later so did Peterson. Olson became principal of St. Peter Middle/High School, and when Olson became superintendent in 2003, Peterson took over as principal.
And now, beginning July 1 — made official by the unanimous School Board vote Monday night — Peterson will take over for Olson again, this time as superintendent of the district upon Olson's retirement.
“He's been such a gracious leader,” said Peterson, 41, who has lived in St. Peter since 1999.
Peterson grew up in Annandale, and thanks to great teachers and coaches, he knew in high school that's what he wanted to do. He also had a somewhat unusual interest for his age in becoming a principal.
“(The principal) called me into the office and said, 'So I heard you want to be a principal.' That was incredibly influential. He said, 'I think you'd be really good at that,'” Peterson said.
Peterson attended Gustavus with sights set on becoming a social studies teacher and coach, a goal he achieved when he landed his first teaching job in Monticello. He was there five years, teaching various courses and coaching girls sports.
“I loved it. I loved connecting with kids in different ways,” Peterson said.
As Peterson was finishing up his master's at St. Cloud State University in 1999, he and his family moved to St. Peter so he could accept a teaching position at St. Peter Middle/High School where Olson was the principal.
“He was just so supportive,” said Peterson, who has 7th- and 9th-grade boys in the district. “He said, 'This would be a great place for you to learn, to get some experiences.'"
Peterson earned his principal license through Minnesota State University. And when Olson became superintendent in 2003, Peterson accepted the principal position at the middle/high school.
In the last few years Peterson went on to receive his doctor of education through MSU and his superintendent license, but he said he didn't pursue the degree with an aim of becoming a superintendent.
“I wanted to challenge myself and wanted to learn more. I think it was more just about the educational experience versus 'this is going to help me get a (superintendent) job somewhere down the line,'” he said.
But when Olson announced his plans to retire, Peterson felt the time was right to take the next step. His main hesitation was the added distance between the new position and students.
“I truly enjoy children. I like engaging with them on an academic level, but also a social level,” he said. “But I hope that I can continue on with some of the visible things that Dr. Olson has done, by going to events, by inviting students to board meetings. He's a great model for that. He stayed very engaged with kids.”
Peterson said he'll be taking numerous other cues from Olson's leadership.
“He's been a tremendous mentor,” he said. “Everything from dealing with people, to always thinking ahead 3-5 years — all of the different elements of the superintendent (position).”
Olson said Peterson has the vital leadership skills needed to do the job, including having a vision, being able to enact that vision, great communication skills, excellent managerial and instructional leadership skills, and always doing what's best for the kids.
“No. 1, we always look for people who have 'it.' And 'it' is hard to define, but you can see it, and he has 'it,'” Olson said.
Moving forward, Peterson said his initial challenges will be hiring two principal positions at South Elementary Early Learning Center and the middle/high school. With the continued growth in the district, he also will be working on connecting with the community about the possible $55 million bond proposal that would include a new high school building.
“In a way I have to reintroduce myself to the community. They've known me as a teacher, they've seen me work as a building principal, (but it's) different as a superintendent,” said Peterson, who will start at a salary of $135,599 per year. “The opportunity to lead at this level in the community, it's an unbelievable honor. I'm looking forward to that.”
Many teachers think Peterson will do a great job in his new role.
“He's the greatest guy ever, so don't take any of his humble pie,” said math and science teacher Scott McClintock.
According to Student Council vice president Keegan McCabe, the student body agrees.
“On behalf of me and the whole Student Council … we have absolutely loved having you as principal, and you mean a lot to all of us,” he said during the School Board meeting.