Finishing On Top, With Help
In general, most superintendents don't like surprises. Too often, they turn out to be school bus breakdowns, discipline problems or erratic school board behavior.
So it figures that Kenneth Dragseth, superintendent of Edina (Minn.) public schools, would have foregone the surprise that lay before him at the recent American Association of School Administrators conference. Dragseth, who was one of four finalists for the association's coveted Superintendent of the Year award, admitted he would have preferred finding out who won about five minutes before he and the other three candidates went on stage.
But that's not how the program works. He knew it. So imagine Dragseth's surprise when he looked at the teleprompter and saw his name listed as the winner-all about 10 seconds before the the crowd of thousands found out the news.
"I saw the teleprompter, and I elbowed my wife, saying, 'Look at that,' " he recounted after the ceremony. By the time his message got through to his wife, everyone in the room knew not only the secret of who had won, but also the story of what Dragseth had done in his 36 years of work in Edina.
Dragseth is that rare creature in education who has spent his entire career in one district. Edina is a professional suburb of 45,000, southwest of Minneapolis. It has nine K-12 schools and about 7,100 students.
He started his career as a math teacher in 1967, following in the footsteps of his mother, who was a teacher. (His wife and daughter both work in education.) Dragseth says he never planned to spend all his time in one district but "the opportunity to do different things kept me there." On his climb to the top, he's been dean of students, curriculum and instruction coordinator and assistant superintendent.
Dragseth's been superintendent of schools since 1992 and his longevity has allowed the district to make steady progress that it can build on, he says. "We're not a flavor of the month district."
In a state known for its proliferation of charter schools, Dragseth is proud to say not one has sprouted up in his district. "I take that as a good sign."
In fact, the district is so highly regarded in the area, that it regularly enrolls about 750 children from outside the district, getting some state money for each one.
Dragseth's leadership comes from old-fashioned hard work. In a community where about 80 percent of the parents have college degrees, the demands on the school system are many.
But he maintains an open line of communication, says School Board Chair Colleen Feige, in part by "meeting with parent organization leadership every month at all nine schools. That's pretty unusual for a superintendent."
So when the district faces a tough decision, like budget cuts or altering the starting time of its high schools, the community is part of the decision.
Dragseth used this coalition in 1996 when Edina became the first school district in the country to delay the start times of its high schools. Research has shown that teenagers have a physiological problem rising early, and even though delaying the school starts by more than an hour created a host of problems-from school buses to afterschool jobs-Edina made the change.
"The public acceptance was probably the easiest part of the problem," Dragseth says. Parents knew their kids were going to school tired.
Feige says that Dragseth frequently thinks about all the children in the state when he's making decisions. And she thinks that's one of the reasons other districts supported Edina's time change, and ultimately changed their high school times themselves. "Sometimes you just have to do what makes sense," she says.
Dragseth is the 16th person chosen in the Aramark-sponsored Superintendent of the Year program. The program's three other finalists were William Mathis, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vt.; Michael Moses, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District; and W. Randolph Nichols, superintendent of Chesapeake (Va.) Public Schools.
Wayne D'Orio, email@example.com, is editorial director.