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Higher education: Principal fulfills promise to students, spends day on school roof

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Kevin Ohnstad, principal at Phoenix Elementary in Grand Forks, greets arriving students from the rooftop of the school Friday morning. Ohnstad made a pledge to the students that if they earn 7,500 points for good behavior and doing good deeds as part of the “Phoenix Pride” program, he'd spend a day atop the roof, no matter the weather. The windchill was minus 20 degrees Friday morning. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 4
Kevin Ohnstad, principal at Phoenix Elementary in Grand Forks, takes a break at his makeshift office atop Phoenix Elementary School in Grand Forks Friday. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 4
Phoenix Elementary Principal Kevin Ohnstad bundles up for his day atop the school, fulfilling a pledge with students that he'd spend the day on the roof if they earned 7,500 merit points for good behavior and kind deeds. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 4

Kevin Ohnstad, principal of Phoenix Elementary School in Grand Forks, dressed in plenty of cold-weather gear when he went to work Friday—because he would be spending his workday on the school's roof, fulfilling a promise to students.

He said if they racked up 7,500 "Proud Moments" points—which they earn for good behavior as part of the "Phoenix Pride" program—he'd spend a day on the roof.

The students surpassed that goal, earning 8,000 points.

"It's a way to recognize positive behavior," Ohnstad said. "It teaches them what it is to be a great citizen, what it is to be kind and what it means to be a contributor to the community."

He suspects students had a little help coming up with the plan to place him atop the school.

"I think the PBST (Positive Behavior Support Team) group kind of talked the kids into the idea," he said.

"I've been an administrator for 18 years, and this is the first time I've been put on the roof."

His rooftop "office" was furnished with a table and chair, and his desk was outfitted with a laptop computer, a set of files, Post It notes, and a box of Kleenex tissues.

And, in case anyone dropped by, his name plate stood front and center on his "desk."

Ohnstad wore three pairs of socks, foot-warmers, snow pants with bibs, long-sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, down jacket, face mask, a thick stocking cap and hood, and "chopper" mitts.

"The choppers have served me very well," he said.

First thing Friday morning, he stood near the edge of the roof and greeted families as they dropped off students for school.

Later in the day he said, "It's been pretty busy, honestly."

Ohnstad connected with the students in their classrooms via computer technology. Using Facetime, "I've been giving tours," he said.

"Every class has come up and we wave and talk through the window" that overlooks the roof.

At the end of the school day, he sent them off with well wishes from the roof.

It's all part of creating a positive learning environment, which includes selecting a "word of the month" to motivate students. "Grit," the word for February, was on full display as Ohnstad faced an early morning windchill of minus 20 degrees.

"I'm an outdoor guy, that doesn't bother me," he said.

The school's "Phoenix Pride" program is meant for students to 'pay it forward' in the community," said Mary Beth Winter, a fourth-grade teacher at the school.

And they have.

Students have donated to St. Joseph's Social Care and Thrift facility and the local Humane Society, and with December's theme of "compassion," they were encouraged "to do something for someone at home to show compassion," Winter said.

In January, they made thank you cards "to show appreciation to St. Paul's Episcopal Church for all they do for us," she said.

This month, they've helped out at neighborhood day care centers.

Earning "Proud Moments" points results in rewards such as ice cream treats or some special activity.

"In October, the kids got to dress as their favorite book character," Winter said.

At 5,000 points, the students had the opportunity to throw pies in the faces of a half-dozen staff volunteers, including the principal.

"It's always fun when you get the principal," Ohnstad said.

If they earn 10,000 Proud Moments points, they'll all be gathered into the gym to watch a movie and eat popcorn.

By fulfilling his promise to spend a day on the roof, Ohnstad said, "it shows students that I'm a man of my word."

It also shows them "that when we set goals with our behavior and act in a positive manner and help each other out, adults will believe in them and do what they say they will do for them.

"We know they're capable of great things."