Column: Sticking with students, no matter the path

My last graduation as superintendent was on Thursday, June 12 and could not have been more appropriate as I end my 40-year career in education. The Adult Basic Education Graduation ceremony was held at Anoka High School. As I sat waiting to give my graduation speech, I thought about the last time I had been on this stage – I was singing “Rockin’ In The Free World,” as part of the Anoka High School Symphonic Rock concert.

Dennis Carlson
Dennis Carlson

After my college degree I taught art for four years and then spent the next 30 years in community education. Community education emphasizes “cradle to the grave” education and is anchored by early childhood family education (along with school readiness) for preschoolers and the adult basic education program for older adult students on the lifelong learning continuum.

My ABE graduation speech for the 85 graduates included a thank you to my mom and dad for their “You are going to college” message and also for the investment they made in each of us three children.  The GED graduates were part of an overall ABE graduation class of 556 adults.  Along with the graduates from our five high schools, the total graduates for 2014 in Anoka-Hennepin was 3,559.  For my sixth straight year we had well over 3,000 graduates, the most from a single school district in the history of the State of Minnesota.

Our message is clear – we stick with our students. We know that each child learns at a different pace and for some – due to the challenges on life’s path – it takes a very long time.  One of the GED graduates was 70 years old.  Several were over 50 years old, many were immigrants themselves or came from families of immigrants. I told them, “You have overcome the challenges life has put in front of you. You have stuck with it, you have placed a priority on education and you have achieved this tremendous goal.” I went on to say, “This evening is not the end. It is the beginning. Education is a lifelong pursuit. You accomplished this milestone – you have much to offer this community and this world. You are great role models.”

For those of you who have never attended a GED graduation, it is like no other. There is constant audience noise – babies crying, everyone cheering and clapping for a daughter, a son, an aunt, an uncle, a mom, a dad, a grandmother, a grandfather, or just for a good friend.  It is absolutely one of my favorite events.

We can be very proud of how we provide public education in the largest district in Minnesota. Families send to us their most precious gifts – their children. We do our best to welcome them, keep them safe, and then give them the best education possible. When you take the job as superintendent you accept responsibility for the 38,000 students you have in your care. That responsibility stays with you until you walk off the job. It wears heavily on you everyday you are superintendent.

So you can imagine the joy I feel on graduation day. I had the pleasure of seeing 20,000 students graduate in the six graduation ceremonies of which I was a part. I got to shake their hands, look them each in the eye and say, “Congratulations, well done, good luck to you.”

All of our staff members who worked with that student from preschool to high school had a hand in his or her success. Their families have played the major role in getting them to this day. Our principals and central office staff have provided building and district level leadership in an effort to support each student.  Our school board has provided consistent, outstanding leadership.

Academics and youth activities make up the fabric of a community. Our quality of life is enhanced tremendously because we support public education and celebrate each of our children who flourish in it. My thanks to all of you for allowing me to serve as your superintendent and being a part of the education of your children. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity and the experiences you have given me in this role.

I have many to thank – the school board for their guidance and for giving me this opportunity, my cabinet for their great wisdom and support, our teachers and our support staff for their constant focus on what is best for students and the community as a whole for their support of public education – through their tax dollars, their volunteering, and their consistent investment in our most valuable resource – our children.

I am sorry that I missed my retirement party and the presentation of the “Lifetime Partner of Promise” award given to me by the Youth First Community of Promise leadership. My thanks to Michelle Anderson, Diane Henning and Martha Weaver for all their hard work in planning the event and their flexibility and understanding of my priority to be with my family in upstate New York.

Although I missed the party, I do, however, have a new grandson, Gideon Lee Carlson Cook.  Gideon, his mother (my daughter, Annie), his dad, Joe, and his big sister, Caroline Elizabeth Carlson Cook are all doing fine. I also want to thank Edee, my lifelong partner, for staying with Annie as she recovers from her surgery, and for all the support she has given me in this very public role.

Edee was an outstanding classroom teacher, a very capable and professional editor of my writing and speeches, and a constant guide and support. It will be nice to have her return home soon.

I sincerely thank the 110 people who attended (despite my absence) and are most grateful for their contributions that will now serve as a scholarship for children in need. It just further demonstrates why I love this community and the people in it so much. Edee and I will continue to live in Blaine and are proud to call Anoka-Hennepin our home in our retirement.  Thank you so much for all your support of this excellent school district and me and my family.  Keep calm and carry on!

Dennis Carlson is the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District. He retires at the end of the month.

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