The inspirational legacy of a teacher

The column was originally published in February and March, 2024 in a number of APG of East Central Minnesotan, suburban and rural papers.  These include the SunThisWeekMilleLacs Messenger,  Monticello Times and from the Princeton/Milaca Mn area, the Union Times.

The inspirational legacy of a teacher

Eugene Piccolo did what all great teachers do. He inspired, encouraged, challenged and prepared everyone he worked with for independence, for a time when he was not here.

Piccolo died unexpectedly on Feb. 6, just two months after he retired from 18 years as executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.

Khalique Rogers, Eugene Piccolo and Joey Cienian

Rogers is co-director, CSC, Piccolo & Cienian, executive director, Mn Association of Charter Schools

But he wasn’t just concerned about charter public schools. As Mary Cathryn Ricker, former Minnesota Commissioner of Education and former American Federation of Teachers executive vice president, told me, “Eugene was a tremendous champion for children.”

Peter Wieczorek, director at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids and former MACS board chair, wrote: “I always looked forward to sitting down for a cup of coffee with Eugene because I knew his passion for charter schools and choice would come pouring out and I would leave wiser, more knowledgeable and with a smile on my face.”

Jeanne Allen, executive director at Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, D.C., recalled: “Eugene was a relentless and devoted champion for positive change in education, a guy who never thought about himself and always worked to build new alliances to get the work done, no matter what conventions he broke.”

Piccolo, 70, worked in a variety of settings, as a teacher, principal, and Minnesota Department of Education assistant commissioner.

Former MDE Commissioner Bob Wedl told me: “In 1996 I asked Eugene to join our leadership team as an assistant commissioner to bring grades 11 and 12 and post-secondary education together. … His competent work provided the needed impetus to what is now commonplace.”

The first several words that come to mind when I think of Piccolo are modesty, relentlessness, effectiveness and integrity.

As Darius Husain, former MACS board chair and director of Face to Face Charter wrote: “While a champion for charter schools, his advocacy did not come without expectation. Eugene challenged leaders to effectively govern and implement the best version of their schools.”

Current MDE Commissioner Willie Jett agreed, describing Piccolo as “a champion of charter school standards and accountability.” Jett added, “His passion for education has left a positive impact on all who knew him.”

Linda Slocum, former Minnesota House member representing Richfield, worked with Eugene to help revise Minnesota charter school laws to increase transparency and accountability. She told me, “I adored Eugene because of his grasp of education law and his willingness to mentor me.”

Linda Slocum, Eugene Piccolo & Joe Nathan

Many people recognized Piccolo’s sense of humor and openness. Beth Topoluk, executive director of Friends of Education, wrote that she and Piccolo sometimes disagreed vigorously. Nevertheless, “he always respected others.”

He had a big influence throughout the country.

Jed Wallace, former executive director at California Charter School Association and director at Charter Folk, wrote that Piccolo was “a trailblazer in charter school advocacy, both in terms of what he contributed in Minnesota over his decades of service, and in terms of the example that he created for advocates in other states.”

Nina Rees, recently retired director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called him “a dedicated advocate for innovation and equity in public education.”

This month I talked with some of Piccolo’s nieces and nephews, who praised him for his humor, love and assistance to them. Nephew Antonino Lombardo, speaking for many, described hours of playing board games with Piccolo, “who offered suggestions for checkers and life, such as looking ahead three moves, not just the next move.”

For more reactions, please read this document created by MACS.

Piccolo prepared many people to lead. I agree with Wallace’s conclusion about Piccolo: “His legacy is tens of thousands of Minnesota students having received better educations than they otherwise would have and a community of schools in Minnesota poised to have even greater impact in the years to come.”

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., is co-director of the Center for School Change. He formerly was a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president. Reactions welcome: