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A Ready Advocate: Education World Chats With the 2003 Superintendent of the Year

School Administrators Center

Dr. Kenneth Dragseth, the 2003 Superintendent of the Year, comes to office during one of the most unsettled times in recent U.S. history. The triumvirate of recession, war, and terrorism threats compounds the social and financial challenges already burdening most school systems. That is why, Dragseth said, children and education have an even greater need now for advocates to remind people that in spite of what is unfolding around them, they have an obligation to ensure education is solid and children succeed. Dragseth told Education World in an e-interview he is ready to "challenge people to care for and connect with kids." Included: Dragseth shares his goals as Superintendent of the Year.

Dr. Kenneth Dragseth, superintendent of the Edina, Minnesota, public schools, is the 2003 National Superintendent of the Year.

With a mother who was a teacher, and more than 10 aunts and uncles and numerous cousins who are educators, some might say it would have been impossible for Dr. Kenneth Dragseth, the 2003 Superintendent of the Year, to avoid a classroom calling.

But Dragseth told Education World he was not pressured to become a teacher; he was just slowly drawn to teaching by his family's deep passion for education.

"I was fortunate to be part of many discussions about education and helping youth that took place at family reunions and celebrations," Dragseth told Education World. "All of those people made me aware of the joy of education and the great feeling you get from helping youth succeed. They didn't push me into education. They showed me the joys and I joined."

The superintendent of the Edina, Minnesota, school district since 1992, Dragseth's award was announced at the American Association of School Administrators conference in February. Dragseth has spent his entire career in Edina, starting there as a middle school mathematics teacher in 1967, and then moving up to dean of students, curriculum director, principal, and assistant superintendent. He also is the president of the Minnesota Association of School Superintendents.

Dragseth recently talked with Education World about why he enjoys his career, his goals as superintendent of the year, and some of the challenges administrators are facing.

Education World:What was your reaction to your selection as AASA Superintendent of the Year?

Dr. Kenneth Dragseth:It was an incredible feeling to be so honored. I feel very humbled by this award. There are so many superintendents who do great work every day in districts throughout this country, and they are heroes. I am honored to represent them and my colleagues in Minnesota, especially.

EW:What do you hope to accomplish as Superintendent of the Year?

Dragseth: I hope that I have the opportunity to challenge people to care for and connect with kids. I would like to stand for adults helping children succeed. People need reminding that children depend on us to help them, and it is our obligation as a society and as individuals to ensure that students have the opportunity to succeed. We must be their champions and their heroes. Both our students and public schools face tremendous challenges every day, and I would like to raise the awareness of that fact, so people understand how crucial it is that we have a healthy and successful public education system.

EW:Who inspired you to be an educator?

Dragseth: I grew up in South Dakota on a family farm. I was very fortunate to be in a family that cherished education and service. My mother was a teacher. More than ten uncles and aunts were teachers and administrators. Numerous cousins went into education and now teach and serve as administrators all over this countryThey didn't push me into education. They showed me the joys and I joined.

EW:What are your goals as an educator?

Dragseth: The first goal is to do what is best for kids. This may seem obvious, but it is one that has guided my decision making over my career. That goal has not failed me in tough times, nor have I regretted decisions I made based on that goal. The second goal is to ensure that all students in our district have the knowledge, skills, creativity, sense of self-worth, and ethical values to survive and flourish in a rapidly changing, culturally diverse society. The third goal is to continue to hire outstanding staff so that the commitment to excellence continues for future students. I want the education field to attract bright, articulate, and caring people to foster the spirit of learning in our students. Those educators will be the key to ensuring that public education meets the needs of our diverse society.

EW:What is harder about being an educator now than when you started your career? What is easier?

Dragseth:The world has become much more complex and challenging. The demands of our global society and the access to technology push us into realms that we previously had not considered. Where we once had time to think about decisions since the mail was slow or other means of communication took time, we now are expected to respond to questions immediately and deal with issues as they arise. The pace of work has increased, as has the need to quickly acquire knowledge to make decisions.

Conversely, technology has made it easier to communicate with the public and staff members so they can be aware of upcoming decisions and be involved in the decision-making process. Technology allows staff to communicate directly with parents on a real-time basis, provide documents immediately to support decisions, and shorten the time needed for decision making so work can progress more quickly. It is much easier to engage the public in our schools [now] and that pays benefits for all of us.

EW:What are the most urgent issues facing superintendents today?

Dragseth:I am sure that most superintendents would say that the continuing crisis of funding public education is one of the most urgent issues today. Everywhere I go, they [administrators] comment on reduced state funding, lack of resources to help students succeed, and the need to rely so heavily on the good will of citizens to pay for our children's education. Where will the financial resources come from to educate all students to be successful in our society?

Another pressing issue is developing a program that not only teaches students the basics, but also prepares them for a very complex world that will require superb problem-solving and communications skills, and an understanding of cultures other than their own. Superintendents also must not only face the challenge of assimilating large immigrant populations into their schools, but also serving greater numbers of students and families living in poverty. We know that we must provide them the educational and language skills to succeed if our society is to move forward.

Finally, we must recruit outstanding young people [to be teachers] to join us in the pursuit of educational excellence for our children. We need talented young people who want to teach and provide leadership in our educational systems. Without that talent pool, the quality of education for our children will diminish.

EW:What is one of the most pressing issues facing educators that you wish was better understood by the public?

Dragseth:I don't think the public understands just how challenging it is for schools to meet the needs of the many different children in our society. Students come to the public schools from different backgrounds and with multiple challenges. They may not speak English, have a warm bed and food in the home, nor live in a safe and secure environment. Many have little parental support for their education and no materials at home to help with their learning. They struggle each day just to get to school, and they bring their everyday lives to the classroom. Educators must not just teach them, but must assist those students in their daily life struggles. It is hard work and not always successful; I think the public at times expects schools to take sole responsibility [for those children's problems.] Those issues can't and shouldn't be the schools' total responsibility, but many educators feel they are the only ones taking responsibility.

EW:How do you see the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act shaping education over the next few years?

Dragseth:Superintendents understand accountability and the need to inform the public how we are doing as educational institutions. The idea of creating more accountability in education through NCLB does not frighten superintendents. The devil is in the details, and states are struggling today to create systems that will measure student progress while meeting the accountability requirements of NCLB. The biggest issue for schools may be the implementation of the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) program and the punitive measures school districts face if they do not meet those requirements. Schools will publicly be labeled as failing under this legislation, and it is unknown at this time how the public will interpret these ratings and what level of support those schools will receive to succeed.

EW:What makes a good day for you?

Dragseth:A good day is one in which I have contact with students. I only have to look into their faces, have a conversation with them, or listen to their issues, and I know why I work so hard for education. We are their hope. They cannot do it for themselves. Those contacts enrich my life and wipe away the frustrations that superintendents encounter. A good day is when we as staff members engage in creating outstanding programs for our students and families. The professional dialogue and interaction get my creative juices flowing. The feelings of partnership and passion in those endeavors make me feel fortunate to be an educator working for the needs of students.

EW: Will you retire as an educator?

DragsethAt some point in my career, I will retire as a superintendent, but doubt that I ever will retire as an educator. I view education as a lifetime avocation and vocation. When my days as superintendent are over, I expect to stay active in educational issues and concerns through other venues. I hope to be able to stay abreast of educational and children's issues, so that I can be a strong supporter in my older years of the need to help our children. All I need to do is to look into the eyes of my grandchildren and know that the job is not completed.

This e-interview with Dr. Kenneth Dragseth is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.