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Madison's mission: Fargo school takes 'that extra step'

As much as Madison Elementary School may be an underdog in the Fargo School District, the Madison Mustangs are never behind. The district's highest-poverty school is diverse and half the size of an average elementary school. But for each challeng...

Principal Chris Triggs with students
Madison Elementary School Principal Chris Triggs gets to know the students by talking with them as they arrive at the Fargo school and throughout the day. Dave Wallis / The Forum

As much as Madison Elementary School may be an underdog in the Fargo School District, the Madison Mustangs are never behind.

The district's highest-poverty school is diverse and half the size of an average elementary school.

But for each challenge Madison students' lives have handed them, their school has lifted them, thanks to many passionate teachers and one principal they can find a friend in.

"You have to take that extra step sometimes," said kindergarten teacher Reiko Barnett. "They know we care."

For every stride behind kids may be, teachers and staff aim to propel them two steps ahead through extra technology, programs and just plain caring.

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The latter of which may be why the northwest Fargo school, settled just south of 12th Avenue North between Interstate 29 and the 12th Avenue bridge, is a refuge for many of its students.

"We're kind of the center of the neighborhood," Principal Chris Triggs said.

At 6:45 a.m., while school doesn't start for two hours, students start showing up. By 7:30 a.m., the gym's packed. And while it's dark outside then, some of these students will stay until nightfall, as late as 6 p.m.

"You can't get them home," Triggs said with a smile.

Yet, as much as kids want to be there, they don't always make it to Madison. When that happens, Triggs shows up at their door to give them a lift to school.

"He really goes the extra mile - I can't think of any teacher who (also) doesn't," said ELL teacher Peggy Tri, adding that she and other teachers will pick up families if they can't make it to conferences. "I want them to know they're a part of the Madison family."

The school's staff goes to such extra lengths simply because they understand the situations some of these families face.

"If you don't relate to these guys here, they'll eat you up," Triggs said. "They (teachers) have to be able to understand where that kid comes from."

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He certainly does.

Raised in Winnipeg by his single mother, Triggs faced a life similar to so many of his students'.

"He knows how hard it is for families," Barnett said. "He lets them know school is important. That understanding and that connection he has with students ... (he) wants to see the student succeed."

Teachers speak highly of Triggs, who's spent the past nine years working to put the school a step ahead of others.

"He goes to bat for us; he goes to bat for the kids," said fourth-grade teacher Megan Kiser. "The teachers we have here are special people. (But) he definitely drives the boat."

The father of three walks the hallways throughout the day, greeting kids by name and asking about their day.

"It does feel like a family at times," said second-grade teacher Joe Wright.

Which is why, while "there's certainly more behavioral challenges" at Madison, Triggs said what he'd miss most about the school are the kids and families.

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"I like the challenge," he said. "I like the diversity - it's the real world."

About 42 percent of the school's students are English Language Learners - refugees coming from places as far away as Vietnam and Sudan.

However, poverty doesn't know ethnic boundaries. With about 80 percent of Madison students receiving free and reduced-price meals, up to half of the 200 students will show up for free breakfast each morning.

"This is their place they come to eat," Kiser said.

The school gives kids a boost beyond food, though.

Madison offered full-day kindergarten two years before it was offered districtwide. Today, they have more music and gym classes than other schools, Triggs said, and have brought in advanced technology to spur interactive learning.

The extra opportunities continue after the school bell rings, from free afterschool tutoring to several intramural sports.

"This is it - they rely on the activities," Triggs said. "They have to have a reason to come to school."

It's the school's staff, though, who give kids and families a reason not just to come to Madison, but to call it "home."

"A lot of the staff really feel that not just our staff is family, but our family extends to the families at Madison," Barnett said. "This is their big home."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515

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