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A day of firsts: New superintendent, new school, new roundabouts greet returning students, parents

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz gives Jasmine Frenzel a picture on Tuesday during the first day of class at Northern Elementary. The gift was in return for a picture she had drawn for him the week before during enrollment. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 3
Ami Aalgaard, principal of Gene Dillon Elementary, jokes with students during the first of three lunch periods at the school on Tuesday. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 3
Traffic moves around the roundabout in front of Bemidji High School on Tuesday morning. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 3

BEMIDJI—How deep can the roots of an average tomato plant grow?

About two feet, according to a student's milk carton at Northern Elementary. He happily relayed that fact to Tim Lutz, the new superintendent at Bemidji Area Schools who tried to visit as many schools in the district as possible on Tuesday, the first day of classes across Minnesota.

"Two feet?" Lutz said with mock incredulity. "I learned my first thing in school today."

Lutz popped into a few classrooms—"I'm just here to make sure nobody is smiling on the first day of school," he deadpanned to a roomful of third-graders—and chatted with staff before driving off to do more of the same at Paul Bunyan Elementary.

After that, he headed to Solway Elementary, Horace May Elementary, stopped for lunch with some first- and second-graders at J.W. Smith Elementary, then headed to Central Elementary and a quick pit stop at district headquarters before heading to Lincoln Elementary. After that: Bemidji Middle School to help wrangle the hundreds of students who transfer buses there as they head home for the day, then Gene Dillon Elementary, the school district's brand-new clearinghouse for its fourth- and fifth-graders.

"I just want to kinda get a feel for how each school operates," Lutz told the Pioneer, adding that he hopes to regularly start and end his day at a school here so students can put a face to his name, and so staff and parents can bring up an idea or concern to him.

Lutz said first-day visits were a lot easier at his last post at Kelliher Public School, which had about 250 K-12 students in a single building. Bemidji Area Schools has 12 school buildings and about 5,200 students who headed back to class Tuesday.

At Gene Dillon, Ami Aalgaard, the school's first-ever principal, helped usher a few hundred students there from the school's first-ever recess into its first-ever lunch period. (Staff there served hamburgers, tacos, pizza, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to about a third of the student body at a time.)

Aalgaard said she spent her morning making sure students there got to their "house"—think school-within-a-school like Bemidji Middle School's "pods"—and their homeroom, and got comfortable.

"I gotta tell ya, it's one of the smoothest first days I've ever had," she said.

A table of fourth- and fifth-grade girls' first impressions of their new school ranged from a thumbs-up to "amazing." Some said they knew each other from classes at their old elementaries or summer school. Others had met that morning and formed fast friendships. Aalgaard said Gene Dillon staff tried to place clusters of students from the same elementary together.

Traffic

A trio of new roundabouts along Division Street did not, seemingly, slow down traffic into the high school and Gene Dillon.

Aalgaard said drivers at the elementary that morning were kind and patient, and that everything seemed to "rock and roll."

At the high school, a handful of drivers were hesitant to enter the roundabout and head into the parking lot there, but the flow of traffic appeared generally smooth.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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