You wouldn't think growing up on a dairy farm is particularly great training for a superintendent. But think about it. You're an advocate/caregiver; the hours are grueling, the demands are 24/7; the bottom line-test scores/milk production-is all that counts to outsiders; and you don't get a lot of thanks because cows can't talk and fourth-graders don't know who you are, let alone what you do.
R. Steve Rasmussen grew up caring for more than 700 head of cattle, milking 350 a day, in rural Washington. As the oldest, there was pressure to join the family business. He enjoyed farming, but he couldn't commit.
The family ended up selling the operation and going into less-intensive crop farming.
"That was not my bliss," he says. "I love to teach kids."
And Rasmussen is not referring to baby goats. He started out as a vocational/agriculture teacher and is currently in charge of some 7,700 children in the Franklin Pierce School District in Tacoma, Wash.
Proving he made the right decision, Rasmussen was named in December one of four finalists in the country for the AASA's National Superintendent of the Year. "I was extremely surprised," he says.
"He tackles tough issues, he doesn't set them on a shelf. He is good at the budget-a lot aren't good at that-and he has the knowledge and courage to say 'No,' " says Mark Baumgarten, the district's school board president.
"We are very consistent with education reform. ...We continue doing what is important, not what is cute," Rasmussen says.
When Rasmussen first came to this suburban district, Baumgarten says the district was $600,000 in debt. "Now we have a 3 percent reserve," he notes.
The district, which has around 50 percent of its student population qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch, was the first in its state to pass a four-year levy to supplement federal and state monies. At the same time, taxpayers approved a $25 million construction bond.
"Board members from other districts congratulate us on taking such 'bold and courageous' action. For us it was more logical than bold. We were confident when we put the proposal before the voters that it would pass. Steve has led the community to a greater understanding of our schools and what is needed for learning," Baumgarten said in his nomination letter to the AASA.
Soon after Rasmussen came to the district in 1992, he invited community, family students and staff to participate in an education summit to determine long-range goals. Four of them were approved: To meet the learning needs of all students; to prepare students for success beyond high school; to provide safe and caring schools that promote learning; and to increase family and community involvement in the schools.
Then a steering committee was formed from summit leaders. In two years, the committee hatched a long-range plan, through study and community forums, from which the district mission, belief statements and goals and strategies were carved.
Rasmussen has also created a community relations office and volunteer coordinator positions at each school.
Baumgarten says the number of volunteers has increased 388 percent. School facilities are open to the public, and this policy has resulted in a 236 percent increase in field and facility use during the last five years.
More than 250 businesses are involved in the district's career program, and while other districts average about 30 percent to 35 percent community involvement, Franklin Pierce averages up to 45 percent, Baumgarten says.
Test scores have also been steadily rising, and Rasmussen, the longest tenured superintendent in his county, says he has only just begun.
To lean on a baseball (surprised it is not farming?) term, Rasmussen says he has been there long enough now to finally get the lineup just the way he wants it, with all the "right" players in the "right" positions.
He is not leaving now.
Amy D'Orio, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance writer based in Brookfield, Conn.