Welcome to the 2023-24 school year and what I hope has been a strong and smooth opening for you and your school communities.
I am honored to serve as MASA President over the course of this school year. I moved to Minnesota in 2013 as a first-year superintendent for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage ISD One91 School District. Then MASA Executive Director, Gary Amoroso, was one of my first calls after accepting the job. Participating in the Great Start Cohort, one of the early presenters was our current Executive Director, Dr. Deb Henton, and she was amazing. I remember saying: “I want to be like her someday.” I’m still trying. Thank you Deb and MASA staff for your ongoing guidance and support. As I reflect on the biggest challenges we face as superintendents and school leaders, MASA and your voice is always at the forefront.
Colleagues, a special thank you to each of you. As we all continue to navigate complex and complicated tasks, having each other’s support has never been more important. We most certainly learned this during the pandemic, and I am thankful that our networks remain connected and have continued to grow even stronger since that tumultuous time.
As we enter this new year, I continue to circle back to one essential question: How are the children? Perhaps it depends on who you ask or where you look. Maybe your answer can be found in student achievement data. An experience a student had in a unique summer program. A senior leading her team to their school’s first conference championship. Frequently, it may be found in what I call the “life backpack” of a new student enrolling in your district. The life backpack contains the compilation of experiences that shape the individuals we assign to our classrooms.
Last year, like so many of you, I faced some of the most difficult safety incidents of my 30-year career working in public education. We set out to collect information about safety from students, families and staff in our school community. This was an important step in providing stakeholders a chance to share how they felt, provide recommendations for consideration, and to address the themes we heard from them.
I also developed the urge to learn more from our students. We distributed 10,575 surveys to students in our high schools and 6-12 campuses. 3,557 students (34%) completed the survey. While the response rate was relatively high, there was a lot more to learn.
I asked our leadership team to put together a series of student meetings with me at our high schools. Not for pictures or PR, but because I wanted to hear directly from them about their experiences in our schools. These student convenings turned into nine full-day meetings with students at the Irreducible Grace Foundation – Black Youth Healing Arts Center in St. Paul. Each session included a brief presentation and grounding from me before we transitioned into grade-level groups for facilitated discussions with staff from our Office of Equity.
The students spent time building community, sitting in restorative circles, and reflecting on their experiences in SPPS. As I visited with each group, they presented posters to me, invited me into their circles, or took me on gallery walks of student-created posters. The same notetaker followed me each day to capture important information. At the end of each day, I reported out “What I heard…What I wonder…What I understood” to the full group so the students knew that I took what they had to say to heart.
Perhaps the most important learning of all was how broadly our community defines “safety.” A lot of what I heard was not about emergency preparedness or physical safety but about school climate and culture, mental health, and the importance of trusted relationships. At the end of the day, students who have strong relationships with their peers and trusted adults at school feel safer. It is so important that our students feel seen, heard and valued. Creating an environment where this is not only possible but expected is our real work as leaders.
I met so many amazing students as part of this process. Just last week, I brought one of them to the State Fair to join me for some live TV interviews. You can watch one of the clips HERE. Bobby Arnold is a senior at Johnson High School who is interested in becoming a teacher and is already a leader in his school. Bobby stood out to me at the student convenings and I thought he would be an excellent representative of SPPS students for the viewers to see.
Our children are at times misunderstood, often feel dismissed, and would like to have more voice in the decisions that impact them. The nearly 850,000 students we have the privilege of serving in Minnesota are amazing. And, they need our leadership more than ever before. As my colleague AJ Crabill says: “School districts exist to improve student outcomes.” Asking and finding the answer to “How are the children?” in your district is an essential first step.