Superintendent Rod Thompson on how to manage ultrafast district growth
In the past 15 years, the Shakopee School District, in a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, has grown from 3,500 students to 8,000. The district is averaging 300 new students and 50-60 new teachers per year. We spoke with Superintendent Rod Thompson, who attended the San Antonio District Administration Leadership Institute Summit in November, about the challenges and opportunities of continued growth.
First, what’s driving the rapid growth?
Two factors. One is the opening of the Bloomington Ferry Bridge, which means you can live in the suburbs and commute to Minneapolis-St. Paul now in just 20 minutes. Second, our municipal leaders are proactively recruiting businesses and incentivizing them to move here, and that effort has been successful. We have 4,500 new jobs coming into Shakopee this year alone.
What’s the biggest change that has developed as a result?
It’s diversity. We have gone from a community that, 15 years ago, was 95 percent white, to now about 65 percent white, and that brings some really interesting opportunities, including new languages. We have more than 60 languages in the district now.
Shakopee School District (Minn.)
- Schools: 11
- Students: 8,000
- Staff and faculty: 1,000
- Per child expenditure: $9,000
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 35%
- Dropout Rate: 4%
Also, previously, the suburbs were primarily farmland, so there wasn’t a need for subsidizing the lunch program because anything that was needed was grown locally. Now, the suburbs are more densely populated and there are fewer farms, and we have 35 percent of students on free or reduced-price lunch.
What are the key things that must be considered to accommodate growth in a district?
It’s important to have strong partners and community support. We used Dr. Hazel Reinhart, who is one of the best demographers, on enrollment projections. Then we hired a financial advisor, Northland Securities, which has experience dealing with this kind of growth. We’ve been constructing buildings every couple of years so we’re working with ICS Consulting on our building planning and Wold Architects for design work.
Also, a tremendous amount of communication and partnership with the school board is key. Our board understands that job growth and district growth go hand in hand. We are communicating with all our stakeholders: parents, government officials and businesses, because the kind of growth we’re going through is changing the very fabric of our community.
Do you have a long-term strategic growth plan?
We are currently at the end of a three-year plan that not only looks at how we can physically accommodate student growth, but also will ensure we are designing a system that fosters student achievement, where all students can learn well.
We are about to start a new five-year plan that includes a referendum for a second high school and all-day, every-day kindergarten expansion. We studied 17 different configurations and models from districts in several other states and even visited some districts nearby to evaluate our options, such as whether we should build one mega high school or have two smaller high schools.
Also, we’re developing a rubric for keeping track of continuous improvement. We’ve already developed in-house technology that gives both a 30,000-foot view of each school as well as granular details at the classroom and student level. We’re evaluating that based on where we are now, where we’re going to be in the spring, and where we should set the bar for the next three to five years.
Have you reached out to other superintendents who have been through high district growth to learn from their experiences?
Yes, and they have been the glue that has held our plan together. At Lakeville, Minn., we spoke with the students, teachers and school board members firsthand. They had just opened up two high schools this year, so hearing about that experience was helpful. Counting on that network of superintendents and district leaders helped us put together the final plan for moving forward.
Have there been any major achievements in the district over the last 12 months?
We have been working with Heartland, a tech company, to develop a 1-to-1 readiness initiative. We are working on our infrastructure and expect to go 1-to-1 with our students over the next two years. Also, we’re shifting from half-day to all-day kindergarten, and that will affect how we go about preparing our kindergarteners to be read-ready by the third grade.
It also creates a whole new level of accountability with both the kindergarten and pre-K staff. To ensure that all students that come into our kindergarten classes are on the same level, we’re going out in the field and meeting with Head Start and day-care centers.
If another district wanted to replicate your growth, what advice would you give them?
I would say conduct a thorough research of your options, and bring key stakeholders together from district, city and the community—as well as outside experts who have gone through it before—to work together and manage expectations. Also, invite them into your district and share your experiences with them firsthand. DA
Lynn Russo Whylly is newsletter/copy editor.