Column: Superintendent, middle schoolers swap stories

Each school year seems to go faster than the previous. So, another school year is coming to a close. Time does fly when you are having fun, or as some say, when you start to get older. Speaking of fun, one of the most rewarding parts of being an associate superintendent for middle schools is that I have the chance to go with Superintendent Carlson and Jennifer Cherry, our Title IX coordinator, to meet with focus groups of middle school students. These groups of around 20 or so students represent the diversity in the student population.

Jinger Gustafson
Jinger Gustafson

The middle school students are so excited to be able to meet, greet, and talk, specifically, to “The Superintendent.” The students introduce themselves and state what grade they are in. When it comes time for “The Superintendent” to introduce himself, Denny Carlson also asks the students if they know what a superintendent does. Typically, the middle school students will have a bit of a puzzled look on their faces until Superintendent Carlson mentions that he is the “snow day guy”. Then, typically, the room is filled with “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” and some smiles.

As well as listening to the middle school students talk about their experiences in school, what they enjoy doing outside of school, and about their favorite classes, etc. Superintendent Carlson often hears about school lunch. We are clear that the orange chicken is definitely a favorite and the students were so grateful that Superintendent Carlson had the power to get syrup for French toast sticks back into the schools. And, yes, Superintendent Carlson does emphasize that both fit our required nutritional guidelines. We also hear about the students’ bus rides to and from school.

The middle school student focus group visits are about 45 minutes or so in length. Not only is the time filled with questions and answers, but also laughter and storytelling. For example, Superintendent Carlson will share that he was an art teacher, plays guitar, has a dog named Harry, enjoys being a grandpa, and his wife, Edee, was an English teacher in the school district. The middle school students reciprocate by telling Superintendent Carlson about their own families, hobbies and pet stories. There are also conversations around school climate and culture. These conversations are good reminders that as things are improving, middle school students still feel we can be even better.

Before the middle school students leave for the day, Superintendent Carlson shakes each of their hands as they walk out of the classroom. He lets the students know that he wants to shake their hands now, because he won’t have the opportunity to shake their hands when they graduate. The middle school students quickly extend their hands out and look up to “The Superintendent”. By the proud expressions on their middle school faces, I can only imagine what they are thinking. And, every so often, Superintendent Carlson provides students with mementoes like guitar picks, which the middle school students know that he carries in his pocket.

The middle school students who participate in these focus group visits with Superintendent Carlson have enjoyed telling their story about what each one of them calls “school”. On behalf of the all the middle school students that Superintendent Carlson has had a chance to meet, greet, and talk with, we say, “Thank you Superintendent Carlson and we know that what you call “school” is all about the kids.”

Jinger Gustafson is the associate superintendent of middle schools for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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