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  • Randy Pench /

    Principal Canen Peterson chats with Pooja Srivastava and her daughter, second-grader Ria, at Theodore Judah Elementary in Folsom.

  • Randy Pench /

    Principal Canen Peterson, center, welcomes a Judah parent to campus in a morning ritual.

  • Randy Pench /

    Principal Canen Peterson leads Drew Wise and other Theodore Judah first-graders to class.

Folsom elementary principal adds programs to build performance

Published: Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013 - 6:48 am

Micah Hayhurst pulled a small blue chair up to a table and leaned in to talk to Dre. He eats lunch with the third-grader every Thursday as part of the Jump Mentor Program at Theodore Judah Elementary in Folsom.

Hayhurst is the male role model that Dre doesn't have at home. They usually wrap up their hour by tossing around the football.

The Rotarian was introduced to the school when Principal Canen Peterson invited his club to take a tour. He is now one of the many volunteers – including a number of Rotarians – at the school.

"Building relationships is key," the 38-year-old principal said as he walked through the immaculate campus on a recent Thursday. "Not just with the teachers and the kids, but with the community."

Peterson left his job as principal of Natomas Station Elementary – one of the highest-achieving schools in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District – to take over Theodore Judah Elementary in January of 2011. He saw it as a challenge.

The 50-year-old campus, just two miles from Folsom Prison, was known as "the prison school," said district spokesman Stephen Nichols. Parents didn't want their kids to go there despite the 810 Academic Performance Index.

Peterson set out to change attitudes.

Each morning he stands outside the school greeting parents and children by name. He shakes hands and distributes hugs.

"If a parent has a question, they don't have to email the principal," he said.

He made the school inviting in other ways – planting flowers out front and making sure the grass was green around the school.

Then he invited the community to become part of the school through mentorship programs and other activities.

"Canen has been instrumental in bringing in the community," said Erin Ward, who teaches second grade and runs the after-school choir program. "He seems to have friends all over the place."

Peterson has deep ties to the community. Although he was raised in Redding, his wife, Aimee, grew up in Folsom. The couple live just a mile from Theodore Judah.

But the experienced principal didn't just make the campus warmer and friendlier. He started an Academy for Advanced Students that draws students from El Dorado County and private schools, as well as from other schools in Folsom Cordova Unified.

Peterson also expanded the Stars program – an after-school academy for kids who need extra support. Mercy Medical helped to plant a school garden.

The school now also has 13 after-school enrichment programs and clubs, including choir, Chinese, French, engineering and four Lego League teams – which use the plastic blocks to teach science and engineering. The after-school programs are open to all kids in the community, whether or not they attend Theodore Judah.

"Some parents were apprehensive at first," Peterson said of the decision to bring their kids to Theodore Judah. "Once here, they realize it's a tight community and that we have created an environment where kids thrive."

As a result, enrollment has more than doubled since 2010, growing from 194 to about 464 students, according to district officials and state data.

"For the first time in a long time, we don't have students leaving," Peterson said. "We have students coming."

This influx of students has changed the demographics of the school – bringing the percentage of students from needy families down from 45 percent to 34 percent, according to state data.

The school's overall API score leaped 90 points to 900 in just one year. And although there is no doubt that the influx of academically gifted students into the accelerated academy has helped the overall score, Peterson points out that every class and subgroup of students also showed increased state test scores.

He also established what he calls a "culture of positive reinforcement." The result: fewer discipline problems from students.

One way the staff reinforces good behavior is to hand out green tickets to students seen adhering to the school's mantra: "Be safe, be responsible, be respectful, be on task and be kind."

The tickets go into a weekly drawing with 14 winners. The "shining stars" file into Peterson's office each Friday for congratulations and to reach into a chest stuffed with pencils, rubber balls, Pokémon cards and other treasures.

Peterson doesn't like to take all the credit for the school's success. "I'm just a piece of the puzzle," he said. "A little piece of the puzzle."

He said the improvements are due, in part, to an increased focus on data and the individual child. He said teachers meet and "talk about children and what works in the classroom."

He calls his teachers "amazing" and says he's lucky to have them.

His staff is equally impressed, calling him supportive and hands-on. Everyone agrees that morale is high.

"It's the best I've ever felt in my job in my life," Ward said. She said Peterson is collaborative with staff and has created a positive environment on the campus.

"He's fantastic," said Ann Alaimo, an instructional assistant in special education. "He is with kids constantly and right on top of things."

Peterson brushes aside accolades, saying the school's success is a team effort – from the custodian who keeps the campus sparkling clean to the teachers who encourage and instruct the students.

"That's what makes it such a good school," he said. "They do what's best for kids."

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Read more articles by Diana Lambert

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