It was a night for proclamations and heartfelt thanks from elected officials, community organizations and even a proclamation from Gov. Mark Dayton June 5. People assembled at the Courtyards of Andover stood in line at the podium to give formal thanks to retiring Superintendent Dennis Carlson for making a difference in the lives of students and the communities served by the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
The only problem was that Carlson was hundreds of miles away in Woodstock, New York, holding grandson Gideon Lee Carlson Cook who had been born the night before – two weeks late. A larger-than-life photograph of the superintendent stood in his place.
Family is a priority for Carlson and the birth of his second grandchild was too important to miss. Last week’s event, a special celebration hosted by Youth First Community of Promise, was even rescheduled to accommodate the baby’s due date. Apparently, it wasn’t moved back far enough.
It went on as planned though, with Anoka and Andover high school cheerleaders greeting guests at the door and student musicians performing in Carlson’s honor. On his behalf, School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann accepted an assortment of gifts, proclamations and the first Lifetime Partner of Promise Award bestowed by Youth First Community of Promise of Andover, Anoka and Ramsey.
Anoka City Councilman Steve Schmidt commented that the Anoka-Hennepin School Board has consistently “put the right person in the right spot,” referring to a history of excellent leaders. He particularly appreciated Carlson’s championing of the restoration and reuse of the old Anoka High School building, later used as Sandburg Middle School, for new life as Sandburg Education Center, headquarters for school board meetings.
Most speakers called attention to the direct impact Carlson had on meeting the needs of students. Andover Mayor Mike Gamache pointed out his work on meeting mental health needs, and Ramsey Mayor Sarah Strommen thanked him for efforts in raising funds to help students and families with financial needs.
Reading the superintendent’s prepared remarks, Heidemann said Carlson very much appreciated the award and the hard-working people of these communities who are “able to put differences aside and come together for our youth.”
Personal friend and colleague Steve Kerr, executive director of community and governmental relations, described Carlson as “a man of high integrity, honesty and ethics.” Carlson was raised on a farm in Northern Minnesota by hard-working parents who firmly believed education was the key to a better life, Kerr said.
He speculated that Carlson’s concern for students who face challenges may have come in part from his years as a “Gobbler” at Aitkin High School. “When the Anoka-Hennepin School District was asked to stand on the stage for a national issue, he stood up for our students and took the moral high road to make this a better and safer school district for all,” Kerr said.
Heidemann reviewed the successes of Carlson’s years as superintendent, pointing out that the district faced a $50 million financial cliff and needed to pass a levy on local taxes when he came out of retirement to take the superintendency. Enrollment was declining, the district needed to close schools, and the economy had experienced the largest crash since the Great Depression.
In addition to passing the levy, closing schools, repurposing Sandburg, and more, Carlson’s leadership resulted in decreasing the achievement gap, increasing scores on state tests and dramatically increasing the percentage of high school students who take one or more college-level classes. Heidemann received enthusiastic applause when he announced that students and their families potentially saved $13.1 million in college tuition costs last year through college-level courses taken in Anoka-Hennepin schools.
He thanked Carlson for “keeping your eye on the prize and leaving Anoka-Hennepin a better place as you leave us.”