Retiring teachers leave a legacy of learning

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Several teachers with long careers in St. Paul schools and the schools of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood will be retiring this spring. All of them are noted for establishing important programs and inspiring students to love learning.

Joyce Peters, a first-grade teacher at St. Anthony Park Elementary, has spent her 35-year teaching career with first and second graders in the St. Paul Public Schools.

For the last 19 years she has been a wise and worldly presence at St. Anthony Park Elementary, where she is spending her last year in the classroom with first graders, the class of 2017.

Peters grew up on the West Side of St. Paul and attended Roosevelt and Linwood elementary schools before graduating from Central High School. She has taught at six different schools over the years.

Peters says she knew she had found a home when she started teaching at St. Anthony Park Elementary. “I knew when I came here that I would stay. The school had a community feeling, one of caring and dedication to learning.”

Peters’ interests in travel and world cultures were well matched to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of her students. Her career highlights are made up of the daily perks that come from working with young, excited learners, “when light bulbs go on for students, especially in reading. There is so much growth that goes on in a year, from when they walk in the door in the fall to when they walk out in the spring.”

Peters’ future plans include a second address in Sun City West, Arizona, where she can be a snowbird. “I am looking forward to reading shelves and shelves of books,” she says, “and continuing to study and learn about world cultures.”

An excited first grader could not have said it better.

Colleague Randy Johnson describes Phyllis Baltes as “just an amazing person.” He adds, “She could have retired long ago. She stayed because she loves teaching and children.”

Baltes, a special education teacher at Murray Junior High, spent 40 years in the St. Paul Public Schools. She was a physical education teacher at Murray in the late 1970s. Later she moved to special education, working for a time with small groups of students in a janitor’s closet.

According to Johnson, “She was one of those teachers who fought for change so that her students were treated equally. Those of us who have come after her owe her a debt of gratitude.”

Besides teaching, Baltes served as an advisor for the student council. The tall pine trees that flank the entrance to Murray were planted by council students along with Baltes.

She and neighborhood activist Ann Bulger started the Wolf Ridge program at Murray, which enables students to attend the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in the Superior National Forest each year.

For her distinguished work, Baltes was honored as the 2005 Rotary Club Educator of the Year. Her future plans will probably include travel. She and her husband have done volunteer work for many years on behalf of an orphanage in the Philippines.

Art Payne and Dr. Johnny Bland were a rowdy pair from the beginning of their tenure as science teachers at Murray Junior High. Payne remembers that after they arrived at the school in the 1980s, “We would chum around together, shake up the mellow mood around school. They called us ‘The Terrible Two.’”

Their sense of humor, creativity and collaboration also revitalized the school in a way that is still going strong on the eve of their retirement. Tim Chase, science teacher and department chair, credits Payne and Bland with creating the science program that became the magnet theme at Murray.

For a while in the early 1980s, there was talk of closing Murray. Payne and Bland worked together to create a science program that would integrate life, earth and physical sciences in a challenging two-year curriculum for junior high students. The district approved their proposal, and the Murray Junior High Science and Math Magnet was born.

Since then Murray has become a popular school, with a waiting list every year. According to Chase, Murray is the district role model for teaching junior high science.

One of Payne and Bland’s notable contributions was a mentoring program whereby Murray students work with scientists at the H.B. Fuller Company and the University of Minnesota. They also built Murray’s science fair into the largest junior high science fair competition in Minnesota. Murray students regularly advance to regional, national and international levels in science fair competition.

Chase describes his two fellow teachers as “two strong-willed, compassionate men who really, really love teaching.”

Art Payne has taught for the St. Paul Public Schools for 35 years. Besides his work at Murray, he has also been a cross country and track coach at Central High School for many years and has led teams to several state titles.

Johnny Bland, originally from Louisiana, came to Minnesota to earn a Ph.D. in plant morphology from the University of Minnesota. He became a teacher and taught for 35 years in the St. Paul Public Schools.

Bland was considered the “grandpa” of Murray’s science department because of his seniority, his laid-back southern attitude and his wry one-liners. He continues to mentor students and will be attending a former student’s graduation from MIT this spring. Although he actually retired last summer, Bland will join the retirement party planned for him and his colleagues on June 13.

Students — former and current — and parents are cordially invited to an open house to celebrate the careers of Phyllis Baltes, Art Payne and

Johnny Bland. It will be held June 13 from 4 to 6 p.m. at Murray. Former students are invited to send written remembrances to the school.

Payne says they hope to see plenty of current and former students. “We want to see the kids. They’re the ones we’re here for.”

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