By Sarah D. Sparks
With the St. Vrain Valley schools’ rapidly increasing needs—the Longmont, Colo., district has grown by 700 to 800 students a year for the past several years, with rising poverty districtwide—one might expect Superintendent Don Haddad to approach his near-constant meetings with business and community groups with hat in hand.
Yet the support Mr. Haddad looks for—and successfully leverages—is rarely financial. Instead, he persuades such outside partners to share training, expertise, and even political acumen with his teachers, staff members, and students.
“What I’ve seen over the last 30 years is educators and the business community [leaders] don’t really communicate. Sometimes schools go out with their hands out [for grants], but they don’t really have a plan,” Mr. Haddad said. “We had a pretty extensive plan, and thought that where business could really help us was with their expertise.”
LESSONS FROM THE LEADER
- Careful Planning: Before seeking community or business partners, set a plan for what you want to do and be sure that what is being offered aligns with your goals.
- Outside Partners: Ask for help from businesses and foundations beyond money, such as expertise and professional development for teachers.
- Community Buy-in: Help parents and community members see how the district works in more detail, including budget and legislative requirements, so they better understand how decisions are made and ways they can help.
Engineering a Vision
Mr. Haddad leads the 32,000-student district 35 miles north of Denver by ensuring that everyone understands a problem and by empowering them all to generate and try out solutions.
If that sounds like an engineering approach to the superintendency, it’s not far off: Mr. Haddad has helped usher in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics initiatives throughout the district.
In 2010, he held a summit for educators, business leaders, and elected officials to discuss the effects of poverty on student learning and to plan how to ameliorate the challenges faced by the roughly 30 percent of the district’s students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Those discussions led, among other things, to a partnership with International Business Machines Corp., which has offices in Longmont. IBM began providing online mentoring to district teachers. The company’s engineers and St. Vrain teachers developed and implemented a science-related summer academy and introduced a STEM curriculum and career tracks at Skyline High School, which has the most concentrated poverty of all secondary schools in St. Vrain. The teachers and IBM engineers launched an “innovation center” in which student inventors can develop and learn to manufacture and market their own creations, with advice from engineers and business people.
In 2013, the partnership also opened the Spark! Discovery Preschool—the first science, technology, engineering, and mathematics preschool in Colorado. Engineers from IBM and other firms helped devise age-appropriate experiments and activities to introduce STEM concepts to young children, and employees from the firms help demonstrate them in the preschool’s classrooms.
“We just inundate our community with everything we are doing,” Mr. Haddad said. “You have to be visible 24/7; they have to know you so they can trust you.”
Trust is a big issue for Mr. Haddad, 53, who started as a principal in the district nearly 15 years ago, when St. Vrain was $14 million in debt and roiled by controversy over financial mismanagement. One of his first achievements when he became superintendent in 2009 was leading the charge to pass the first bond override in the district’s history, to generate additional taxes.
“You see him not just at school events but community events, so the businesses understand why to invest in our schools,” said Sarah M. Elahi, the president of Grassroots St. Vrain, a parent- and community-advocacy group. “That is a really key thing when you are in survival mode.”
Mr. Haddad reorganized the district, which previously arranged professional development and curricular discussions within elementary, middle, and high schools.
Now, school principals and teachers within a feeder system plan together to ensure the curriculum is aligned and “students are learning in the same way as they progress from elementary to middle to high school,” said Robert J. Smith, St. Vrain’s school board president.
“With roughly 50 different schools, you want independent, dynamic, creative leaders in those buildings on the one hand, and on the other, you want them to be in alignment,” Mr. Smith said. “When [Mr. Haddad] came in, St. Vrain was a district of schools, not a school district, and now we are a school district; he has the right balance of district leadership and support and autonomy at the local schools.”
Mr. Haddad does walk-throughs of every school at least 10 times a year, meets with each school’s staff twice a year, and meets teacher-leaders from each school once a month.
He also overhauled the district’s budget process to ensure expenses lined up with the goals he was pitching to the staff and community. “You have to internally get everybody on the same page and make a commitment to be true to that mission,” Mr. Haddad said. “You can’t say your mission is this and then fund all these other things.”
And while the district under Mr. Haddad didn’t initially seek outside money, new funding for its initiatives has come. The district won nearly $16.6 million in federal Race to the Top district-grant aid, as well as $3.6 million in one of the highest-rated federal Investing in Innovation grants in 2010—both supporting parts of the STEM initiatives.
“We were already deep into the STEM initiative and the technology initiative” when the district decided to apply for Race to the Top, Mr. Haddad said. “It wasn’t, ‘Let’s get this money and then figure out what to do with it.’ We do not want money unless it ties directly to our mission and our vision.”
We had a pretty extensive plan, and thought that where business could really help us was with their expertise.
Between the school reorganization and the influx of corporate input, the superintendent enacted a lot of change in a few years—enough to easily cause a backlash.
That’s why Mr. Haddad said he launched Leadership St. Vrain, a six-month boot camp for anyone who wants to understand the district, from parents to business leaders and local lawmakers. Representatives from different parts of the community, including seniors and taxpayers without children in the system, also are recruited.
Cadre of Leaders
One Friday a month for eight months, the group meets for a 2 ½ -hour session to study and discuss different aspects of the district, including school structure, demographics, and history; budget development; curriculum and assessments design; school safety; building operations and maintenance; and upcoming education-related federal and state laws.
Ms. Elahi, who was in one of the first cohorts to go through the leadership academy, said it changed her view of the district.
“It’s really enlightening because it seems so simple before you go through this course and you find out how many levels [administrators] have to go through when they make decisions,” Ms. Elahi said.
The grassroots organization Leadership St. Vrain has evolved from those early classes, she said, and now regularly helps get the community involved in district projects and advocates in the state capital.
“He totally encourages parent engagement,” she said of Mr. Haddad. “Other districts can’t seem to get on the same page. You wouldn’t be able to have any of the advocacy groups around the district if the leadership wasn’t on board with that.”
For example, St. Vrain volunteered to be a pilot district for Colorado’s SB 191 law, which laid out a new teacher- and principal-evaluation system, “because we wanted to help shape it,” Mr. Smith said. “Rather than react to things, [Mr. Haddad] makes sure the district is involved” in planning, Mr. Smith said.