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Principal looks back on 34 years at Piedmont

Kenny Kemp
Principal Steve Knighton sits on a beanbag and reads along with students at Piedmont Elementary. Knighton, who has worked at the school for more than three decades, will retire this month.
Kenny Kemp While touring the school, Knighton gets a spontaneous hug from Piedmont student Brianna O'Brien.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Piedmont Elementary, located on Charleston's East End, is one of the state's only year-round schools. It was the first elementary school in the area to get a computer, and also the first school in the district to offer a gifted program.

The students there don't receive letter grades, but instead, comprehensive "narrative reports" written by their teachers. It was the first time many local teachers had ever seen an "open learning" environment -- the school's second floor was built without barriers between classrooms.

Today, the school is full of iPads and interactive white boards. Last week, a director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh led classes via videoconferencing.

Piedmont Elementary has long been known as a leader in innovative learning, with Principal Steve Knighton at the forefront for three decades. But in addition to "trailblazer" and "forward thinker," Knighton has played another, lesser-known role at the school over the years: a source of stability.

The school's attendance zone includes most of the city's federal housing and homeless shelters, resulting in a student turnover rate of about 35 percent. In a state where 94 percent of the population is white, more than half of the students at Piedmont are minorities.

Knighton, who will officially retire Sept. 13, greets the students by name as he walks the halls and pokes his head into classrooms. He jokes around with them and asks if he can sit and read quietly beside them. Some rush to hug him.

He remembers the time an immigration officer plucked one of his students out of class for not having a green card, and when a student's father crawled into the school, bloodied after being shot -- asking to say goodbye to his daughter.

At Knighton's urgency, the school now employs a full-time social worker and counselor.

"I have so many stories about the children -- some that would double you over in laughter, and some that would break your heart and you'd just cry and cry," he said. "It's vital that these kids know we want to help them."

Knighton, 63, of Charleston, has spent 34 of his 41 years in education at Piedmont Elementary -- a career that began with some serendipity: As a college student working for his dad's business, Knighton delivered the doors for the school while it was being built.

"Little did I know..." he laughed.

Knighton was at Piedmont in 1974 when "60 Minutes" showed up at the school to cover the violent protests during the Kanawha County textbook controversy.

He watched the school environment change as the world changed. He saw them install safer doors, and he now has a computer at his desk that allows him to see six different views of the school at all times.

"I think parents appreciate that you have to page in order to get in the door, but it didn't used to be that way. Then, it felt a little more family-oriented. Now everybody's suspicious of everybody else," Knighton said.

Despite his long list of accolades, he lists something as simple as building a new playground for the school -- Celebration Station -- as one of his biggest accomplishments.

That's because it represents what he says is at the core of all successful schools: a meaningful relationship with the community.

The outdoor play area took only two weeks to build because more than 2,000 volunteers came to help.

"Families are a very important part of education," he said. "That support makes a big difference in what you're trying to do."

While Knighton has spent most of his life touting cutting-edge learning strategies to other educators -- Piedmont implemented year-round school nearly 20 years ago -- he plans to travel to Europe with his wife and spend more time with his children and grandchildren, who live out of state, after retirement.

He says that although he will miss Piedmont, he has no doubts about the future leadership of the school.

"This school kind of incubates leaders. We always say if you can get it done at Piedmont, you can get it done anywhere. It's a great place to innovate," he said. "The teachers here are imaginative and creative. You can get things done if you have a group of people who are on board and want to see change."

Knighton said his last day will be hard, but the students he's met over the years have been a great gift. "You don't know how you affect or influence children until you do," he said.

"And when they come back years later and tell you that you were a big part of a decision they made -- something you taught them helped them make a really good life choice -- those are the stories. Those are the poignant moments."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.

 

 


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