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Murray County Central West Elementary Principal Sally Berg has been with the district since 1979. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)

MCC principal dedicated to student success

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MCC principal dedicated to student success
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

SLAYTON -- Ask Sally Berg about her job, and her enthusiasm shines like a thousand candles. The effort she will go to at work is almost endless, but there is one thing she insists she will not do.

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"I will not give up on a child," she stated.

Berg has been the principal at Murray County Central (MCC) West Elementary for about 15 years and has worked in the school district since 1979. She started as a second-grade teacher, and later, interested in pursuing advanced licensure, was encouraged by administration to take a position in the Title 1 program.

Although she was sad to leave her second graders, Berg completed her reading licensure and accepted the position with Title 1.

"Title 1 works with students who are working below grade level - we try to get them up to grade," Berg explained.

The first challenge in working with struggling students is to convince them they are capable. Berg said children who have difficulty keeping up with classmates can end up believing they are not as smart as their peers.

"We let them know they are smart," Berg said, adding that some children need to take a different approach to learning than others.

Helping those children succeed is something Berg is passionate about. Even after becoming principal in 1994 or so -- she can't remember exactly which year she made the change -- she strives to make sure each student is thriving at MCC.

Students new to the school are welcomed with open arms. Berg and the MCC staff make sure the other kids are helping the new student adjust, and she said the teachers and children do a nice job of stepping up to do so. Berg also makes a point to visit with the new student after a few days to be sure the child is finding friends and happy at their new school.

But a student doesn't need to be new to get that little extra bit of attention.

"My teachers look in the eyes of their kids each morning," she said. "They know who got a new puppy, who may have a sick grandparent or is having trouble at home."

Even placing the students with new teachers each year is something that is done with plenty of forethought. At each grade level is a team of teachers who work together to get each student the kind of atmosphere in which they can thrive.

"We have a whole menu of teachers and characters," Berg said with a smile.

By the time a child has been enrolled in MCC for a year or two, the staff knows which ones will do better if their best friend is in a different home room and which ones need a good buddy nearby.

"We know the kids; that's the wonderful part," Berg explained. "We really get to know them."

In one grade level, there is one teacher Berg said is especially good at building up a child who needs extra help. More than once, Berg has gone to this teacher to tell the child's story -- his or her triumphs, backward steps and successful moments.

"Let me tell you about the journey," Berg will say to the teacher. "Let me tell you how far they have come."

Another thing Berg is passionate about is reading.

"The beauty of reading is if it doesn't come easy at first, it can come with hard work and perseverance," Berg explained. "It just comes. It's like one day the reading fairy just shows up."

Over the years, there have been many children who have had wonderful success, and many children who struggle.

The struggles don't always come from school work. Family, friends and life in general can affect a student.

"Worrying about family problems can be a burden," Berg acknowledged. "With some kids, you know when they are going through a hard time."

Seeing those same students work hard and succeed is something Berg enjoys. Seeing their names show up on junior high and high school honor rolls after they leave elementary school can always make her smile.

"Effort produces achievement. Kids prove it to me every day," she stated.

Sometimes letting students leave her school to progress in their education is hard to do, she admitted.

"There is always this handful of kids who almost have all the pieces together, but not quite," she said. "So you keep an eye out, and we communicate well with the high school."

To prepare students for the change brought by seventh grade, classes in fifth and sixth grade are run like a mini-middle school, Berg said, with the kids cycling between the various teachers for different subjects. This also gives the teachers a chance to dig deeper into their favorite subjects.

The mini-junior high atmosphere has become as much a tradition at MCC West Elementary as the People Respecting Others (PRO) awards and the fourth-grade campout.

MCC West has a positive reputation for high-caliber education, Berg said, which is something she and the rest of the staff feel very good about.

"We let the kids know that this is their job," she said. "We stress academics and achievements, and the kids have never let us down."

MCC West Elementary was given a School of Excellence award in 2008, which Berg said was a wonderful highlight.

"It was so fun to see the kids and the community so proud of our school," she stated.

But it has never mattered what the school has tried to accomplish. The community, Berg said, has always shown unflagging support, no matter what the challenge.

Several years ago, it was decided new playground equipment was needed, and the students and staff gave themselves a year to raise the $38,000 to $40,000 necessary. And then the community stepped up.

"We raised it by July. We did fundraising for three months," Berg said. "And we had our playground."

The community also steps up with the students. With federal funding that has gone down every year for the past 14 years, the school depends on volunteers for help.

"There are parents, grandparents and others who come in every single day to listen to kids read," Berg explained. "Some of them are community members who don't have any ties to the school anymore, no kids are grandkids here."

That extra bit of attention -- someone to listen to them read -- is critical for some children. Over the years, one of the things Berg has seen change is the structure of families, such as more singleparent families and more families where both parents work. Still, parents make the effort to come in before work to read, or find the time.

Community members and parents aren't the only ones who step in to help. There are several programs that match elementary students with high school students. The first grade buddy program is one of them, and is beneficial to both ages.

"I think we are all amazed that someone looks up to us, no matter who we are in life," Berg said, adding that some of the pairings between first-graders and high-schoolers have become heartwarming to witness. "Sometimes the student you think doesn't have the patience to work with a first-grader surprises us all."

The buddy program also gives the teachers a chance to try things in the classroom that wouldn't be possible without a small fleet of high school helpers nearby. Together, they can accomplish all kinds of things, Berg said.

With the change in family structure has also come a rise in children in poverty situations, Berg acknowledged. The school is providing more school supplies for more children, works closely with programs such as the Christmas Project, and even helps with children who need optometry appointments.

"There are needs that some families just can't take care of," Berg admitted. "And I don't think I could rest if I knew there was a child that couldn't see. A child's life is worth so much."

It is because she believes so strongly in the worth of every child that Berg will never give up on one.

"I will tell a child, 'I will never give up on you. Don't you give up on yourself,'" she stated.

She knew by the time she was in junior high that she wanted to teach. Berg said she liked the way teachers made her feel, she liked the way classrooms were arranged.

"I didn't realize at the time how much you get back," she admitted. "This is the most wonderful profession in the world. What we do changes lives, and the satisfaction of seeing progress made, of seeing a child become engaged in learning. ... Every day you get to take so much home with you."

Recently, a man enrolled his daughter at MCC West Elementary. He had been a child in Berg's second-grade class -- one who needed a little extra attention and encouragement. He brought his little girl to the school on her first day, and Berg was pleased to see him.

"It was so great to see him being the best daddy he could be," she said. "He introduced me to his daughter and told her, "(Mrs. Berg) is going to take care of you.'"

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