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Grand Forks teachers take a pie in the face to raise funds to brighten the holidays for students in need

"Whipped cream chaos" fills school gym as students cheer on classmates 'pie-ing' teachers

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A Schroeder Middle School student smears a whipped cream pie in the face of Schroeder Middle School principal David Nowatzki, center, who was duct-taped to the wall of the school gymnasium during the Pie Assembly event on Friday, December 3, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

You could call them really good sports -- or maybe gluttons for punishment -- these teachers who volunteered to take a pie in the face for a worthy cause Friday, Dec. 3, at Schroeder Middle School in Grand Forks.

For several years, Schroeder teachers have been raising funds during November to ensure that students in financially-strapped families have gifts to open at Christmastime.

For every $20 a student drops into the bucket of a participating teacher in November, they can “pie” a teacher on the spot in the classroom. And for every dollar they contribute, students can put a slip of paper, with their name on it, in the bucket for the chance to “pie” a teacher during the school assembly.

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This past week, about 60 names of students were drawn; those students could then “plot” which teacher they would “pie” at Friday’s school assembly, said Justin Johnson, sixth-grade social studies teacher.

Earlier in the week, as he looked ahead to Friday’s assembly, Johnson said, “It’s going to be a half-hour of whipped cream chaos.”

And it was.

The teachers appeared a little nervous as they sat in a semicircle in the school gym, most of them wearing heavy-duty garbage bags., awaiting the pie-wielding students.

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Schroeder Middle School physical education teacher Kirby Krefting, center, reacts after being hit with a whipped cream pie by a student during the Pie Assembly event in the school's gymnasium on Friday, December 3, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Cheers and applause from the bleachers grew to a roar as students watched their classmates press the whipped cream “pies” into the face or entire head of selected teachers.

“We buy hundreds of tubs of Cool Whip,” Johnson said. “We definitely help out the Cool Whip economy during the holiday season. We’re so lucky, with all the COVID shortages, that Cool Whip wasn’t one of the shortages that we had, because I don’t know what the heck we would have done.”

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“The first year we did this we raised about $800,” Johnson said. “This year they’ve collected $5,800.”

“We had one teacher who took over a $1,000 in pies throughout this past month,” he said, referring to Bryce Nordine, sixth grade science teacher. The “pie-ing” of a teacher, which takes place spontaneously, is disruptive to the class, staff members agree, but “we just decided November gets crazy and fun, and we still do the assembly,” Johnson said.

“So this has totally taken off; it’s craziness,” he said. “It’s really turned into an awesome thing.”

In the past eight years, the project has netted more than $23,000 to buy gifts for students in families where money is tight and parents may be faced with the decision of “paying a bill or getting their child a gift,” Johnson said.

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Paraeducators Tomi Lundby, left, and Chris Lofgren, right, dole out the final dollops of whipped cream on paper plates for the Pie Assembly celebration in the Schroeder Middle School gymnasium on Friday, December 3, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Christmas gifts for students

The project, which has grown every year, started when teachers began “brainstorming about how we could raise money for (the No-Shave November challenge) and what we could do with the money,” said Johnson. No Shave November is a nationwide challenge -- or excuse -- for men to quit shaving for a month, sometimes linked with a fundraising effort.

They decided to use the funds “to buy Christmas gifts for students at our school that were identified as financially struggling during the holiday season, because we want to take that burden away from those families,” he said. “We wanted to see what we could do to help alleviate those worries on some of the parents.”

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Schroeder Middle School students secure principal David Nowatzki, far left, to the gymnasium wall with duct tape prior to the Pie Assembly celebration in the school gymnasium on Friday, December 3, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

The project has morphed into a popular annual campaign to brighten the holidays for Schroeder students.

Last year, Principal David Nowatzki said if students raised $4,000 he would shave his head -- and he did, Johnson said. This year, Nowatzki said if students raised $5,000, they could duct-tape him to the wall during the assembly -- and they did.

On Friday, students covered Nowatzki with so much duct tape he was held in place several feet off the gym floor.

The school’s resource officer, Jay Farmer, had told students that if they raised $5,000 this year he would have his head shaved during the assembly. On Friday, with a newly sheared head, Farmer said, “I’ll have to raise it to $10,000 next year.”

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Men's Hair Co. cosmetologist Jami Moffett, top, shaves Schroeder Middle School school resource officer Jay Farmer's head during the Pie Assembly event in the school gymnasium on Friday, December 3, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

‘Making a difference’

“The pies are fun and stuff,” Johnson said, “but we really try to stress throughout the month that this goes to our own students. With what you’re doing, you are really helping out and making a difference in your classmates’ lives.”

School social workers and counselors help identify students in need, and “sometimes as teachers we know about personal things that are happening, such as divorce,” that cause holiday stresses, Johnson said. The names of the students who receive gifts are kept private, he said.

“It gets expensive during these holiday seasons and every parent wants to make Christmas special for their kids, but in some instances it makes it really tough financially, especially with what we’ve been going through for the last two years, so if we can do anything to alleviate that we’ll put our faces on the line, easily, to do that.”

With this year’s funds, “we’re going to end up buying Christmas gifts for over 50 students -- that’s almost 10% of our student population,” Johnson said. “In a school with a student body of just under 600, that’s a good chunk of kids that we’re helping out.”

“We’ve done it for eight years, and every single year, we’ve raised more money than the year before,” he said, “Every year we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re never going to raise that much money again.’

“We went from $4,500 last year to $5,800 this year,” Johnson said. “I have no idea where this thing’s going to go, but it’s been crazy.”

Each year, teachers gather lists of the items the children want and Jon Sailer, seventh-grade science teacher, does the shopping. Sailer doesn’t buy generic things -- a certain item for all the girls or one for all the boys.

“We try to personalize our gifts,” Johnson said. “We buy for each individual student to fulfill their list of what they want.” When the shopping is done, a group of teachers wraps all the gifts and spends an evening delivering them.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.

This year, the sixth graders raised more than $3,200, the highest of the three grades, Johnson said. “Maybe the sixth-grade teachers had the most ‘pie-able-looking’ faces.”

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