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According to cliché, a school's assistant principal is the enforcer. The principal can be a nice guy or gal, but the assistant principal is the mean disciplinarian students are sent to see when they get in trouble.

Jean Cerisier isn't that kind of assistant principal.

For one thing, her office at Ascension Catholic School in Minneapolis has Christmas lights hanging above her desk because the kids like to look at them. She has an open-door policy and normally keeps the ceiling light off, letting sunshine pour in through the big window.

"I want it to be a welcoming spot," Cerisier said. When students are sent to see her for disciplinary reasons, she'll talk to them conversationally "until they just relax," she said. "Then I say, 'Let's talk about what you did.'"

Cerisier, 68, is retiring after 43 years on the Ascension staff, most of them as a gym teacher and coach, the past two years as assistant principal. Widely known as "Ms. Jean," she is beloved and respected in the school community for her positivity, for the kind ways in which she interacts with students — at Ascension they call them "scholars" — while still holding them accountable.

"She doesn't want kids to equate seeing her with being in trouble,'' said Principal Benito Matias. "She's gentle yet firm. The kids know Ms. Jean as someone who cares about them and someone who is a no-nonsense type of person and doesn't really take a bunch of stuff, if you will — from scholars, from parents, from teachers. She's very candid, she's not abrasive. She's able to be very direct with folks."

Adding the nine years she attended as a student, from kindergarten through eighth grade, to her four decades on the staff, Cerisier has been part of the school for well over a third of its 125-year history. She has coached multiple sports and also refereed — she reffed at the initial Minnesota State High School League girls' state basketball tournament and was the first woman in Minnesota to ref a boys' high school basketball game.

Her career will be celebrated at a public retirement party Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. at the school. There's likely to be plenty of praise for her, because people speaking of Cerisier tend to use glowing terms.

"She is such a wonderful light for our community in general," said Quentin Moore, vice president for advancement at Ascension Catholic Academy, a consortium of Twin Cities Catholic schools that includes Ascension Catholic School and three others.

Moore met Cerisier in 1991, when he was in kindergarten and she was his gym teacher.

"She was loving, she was caring, she was nurturing in a very fun way," he said. "She took the time to get to know us, to pour love into us, to reassure us there was someone outside of our home and our immediate nuclear family who wanted the best for us."

She was engaged with her neighbors, the parish, the community, he said. "Her influence extended well outside the gym. ... She was everywhere."

Part of a family

Cerisier followed in her mother's footsteps, almost literally, as a gym teacher, a coach, and an inspiration to those around her.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my mom," she said. "I learned so much from her."

Originally, her mother, Pat Cerisier, was her coach and teacher at Ascension. At the time, her name was Jean Louis. She "had struggles" with her family of origin, she said, not going into details.

"I was just struggling in so many ways, things weren't panning out, I was getting in too much trouble, things at home weren't good. I wanted to do other things with my life. ... Athletics helped me immensely."

Jean Cerisier (far right row, front desk) was one of just a few Black students when she attended Ascension Catholic School.
Jean Cerisier (far right row, front desk) was one of just a few Black students when she attended Ascension Catholic School.

Provided photo

Pat Cerisier took her in to live with her, her husband and their eight other kids. They legally adopted her when she was 18.

Her brother, Jeff Cerisier, said his parents saw Jean as a girl who needed help.

"I cannot remember a time in our family where Jean was not a part of our family," he said.

People used to describe their mother the way they now describe Jean: "Very humble, well respected, never a pushover," Jeff said. "Much like Jean."

An extra push

Matias remembers holding a staff meeting shortly after he became principal that became "fairly intense" as staff members aired their opinions. They weren't exactly angry, he said, but "just everything was coming out at once," he said.

A couple of days later, he and Cerisier were walking across the school campus when she turned to him and said, "A meeting like that will never happen again," he recalled.

"Lo and behold, seven years later we have never had another meeting like that. She is so respected and so revered by her peers."

Cerisier is adept at seeing what a student might need and acting on it. She doesn't call on the shy kids if they'd rather keep a low profile. She notices when kids are acting up to get her attention.

"Sometimes some kids just need that extra push," she said.

The rewards are great when students who struggled in their younger years go on to success after Ascension.

"Some of our kids have had a lot of challenges," she said. "When you have seen a child come here from kindergarten to eighth grade and then see them graduate and go on, that's awesome."