When he taught in Bemidji, Jim Caldwell took students to the Deep Portage Conservation Reserve in Hackensack for field trips.
When he taught in the Forest Lake Area Learning Center, he focused on biomes of the world.
“One of my first goals after college was to teach in an environmental place,” he said. So he is very happy to be the new principal at Linwood Elementary, a few steps from the Linwood School Forest and Community Park.
Superintendent Linda Madsen offered Caldwell the position on April 4, and the School Board approved the hiring on April 17.
The 43-year-old has served as interim principal at Linwood since December. He is replacing Roche Martin, who resigned earlier this year. Martin started as Linwood principal in 2005.
Caldwell is eager to bring the school forest further into the curriculum, aligning the program with state standards in science as the students explore ecology and biomes.
“I’m super excited about the future,” he said. “We have a swamp, a pond, a prairie and a virgin forest – trees that have never been harvested. We have a naturalist from Wargo Nature Center out three times a year to work with every grade. We have had an Eagle Scout contribute trail signs. We have Project WET and Project WILD,” education programs focused on water and wildlife conservation.
The Linwood Community Park and School Forest, owned by Linwood Township, is about 220 acres with four trails.
The township bought part of the land about 17 years ago through a tax forfeit, and then another 40 acres was donated.
Students get to the forest by walking along the edge of a field. There is an easement on that land to give the school access, and last month the land was sold to the Department of Natural Resources.
Caldwell said he got involved with the forest when, as interim principal, he received a phone call from Linwood parent and former president of the Linwood Community Park and School Forest, Cheri Stockinger.
The school cooperates with Linwood Township to oversee the forest, with committee members meeting once a month during the school year. The elementary principal and one Linwood Town Board supervisor are non-voting members of the committee.
The group is considering a fifth trail.
The school forest program provides students with active, hands-on opportunities.
“When kids are out there working and learning, they’re going to treat it appropriately,” Caldwell said.
Academically, things are going well at Linwood, he said.
“The atmosphere here is awesome. Kids and staff are doing what they need to be doing.”
Lino Lakes Elementary has a STEM emphasis, Scandia Elementary is becoming an International Baccalaureate school, and some elementary schools in the district offer foreign languages. At this point there are no plans to add these at Linwood.
“We have to find our niche,” Caldwell said.
In addition to taking advantage of the school forest, he plans to increase the number of thematic units, organizing the curriculum around central themes.
Several different subjects, including math, reading, social studies, science and language arts, are taught around the same theme, which can increase student interest and help them understand real-world connections.
Caldwell said that next year several projects, such as the fifth-grade recycling topic, will be tweaked to use thematic units to bring subjects together.
Thematic units and the school forest are part of his vision to enhance the special learning environment at Linwood, “to put Linwood on the map,” he said.
Caldwell was in his fifth year as assistant principal at Forest Lake High School when he was named acting principal at Linwood Elementary last December, but his background is in elementary education.
“This is a phenomenal opportunity for me,” he said. Caldwell started his career as an elementary teacher and now has come full circle.
Caldwell grew up in Moose Lake, Cottage Grove and Brainerd, as his family moved to follow his father’s career as a hospital administrator.
After high school he played hockey at Bemidji State, where he met his wife, Kari.
He graduated from Bemidji State with a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education and began his career at Bemidji’s Central Elementary, teaching third and fifth grades in 1994 and 1995. In 1999 and 2000 he taught second and third grades at Chisago Primary School in Chisago Lakes.
In addition to elementary grades, Caldwell is also licensed to teach middle school math and social studies. In 2002 Forest Lake hired him to teach sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the STRIVE program at the Area Learning Center.
Caldwell said his favorite math subject is geometry, and he likes to build things. He put his woodworking skills to use making colonial reproduction furniture, helping his parents in their retirement business and paying for his 2004 Master of Education degree in curriculum and instruction and his K-12 administration certificate from the University of Minnesota. He also participated in an education policy fellowship program through the Institute for Educational Leadership.
From the Area Learning Center, in 2005 he moved to Forest Lake High School as a dean of students, then spent a year as assistant principal at Anoka High School before coming back to Forest Lake as an assistant principal in 2008.
He lives in Scandia with his wife and three children, who all attend Forest Lake schools: William at Scandia, Zachary at Century Junior High and Emelie at the high school. When he was hired as assistant principal at the high school, Caldwell made a commitment to live in the Forest Lake school district.
As assistant principal at the high school, his duties included building security, state testing, AP testing, staff supervision, fire and tornado drills and scheduling.
A lot of this is similar to duties of an elementary principal, but there are differences.
The biggest adjustment in coming to Linwood Elementary, he said, is dealing with parents when there is a behavior issue.
“At the high school, we work more with the young adult, then bring the parents in after that conversation,” he said.
At the elementary level, the school involves parents early in the process.
Caldwell says he brings a relationship-building attitude to his job. He has a firm hand and holds kids accountable, he said, but is also approachable. “Discipline one day and have my arm around them the next day.”