Dr. Dennis Peterson
Superintendent of Minnetonka MN Schools
To explore the story of an open enrollment district and provide information and best practices advice to lead other districts to success.
In this District Spotlight, guest Dr. Dennis Peterson (Superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools) shares lessons learned from his 50+ years of experience, explains the unique challenges of being an open enrollment district, and discusses ways they have worked to champion innovation in order to make their schools stand out.
Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.
Welcome to the podcast, ChangeAgents in K-12. Everyone. I'm really excited today to have a guest, a person that I've known for a couple of years. And I think you're going to find him incredibly interesting. Dr. Dennis Peterson is currently the superintendent of Minnetonka public schools in Minnesota. Dr. Peterson is, is really unique and, and he's been an educator for a long time and he's, he's done so many things. We just don't have time to go through all of it, but basics are that, that he started as a superintendent in 1967. So in that year I was an elementary school. So he easily could have been. My superintendent took a couple of years off during that timeframe to earn his PhD. And he spent a couple of years working in Washington, DC. Of course, dr. Peterson was a teacher before that, and he's been a superintendent in five States, Ohio, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wyoming in 27 years now running in, in Minnesota. So he has a lot of context, a lot of things to share with us across the country. And I would also add from an award standpoint, he has many, many but superintendent of the year in Minnesota and South Dakota. So please welcome Dr. Dennis Peterson to the podcast.
Awesome. So, um, let's start off with, um, just a little background. So, uh, give folks a little love flavor of your school district. So if you could just describe a few of the characteristics of your current district Minnetonka,
Yeah Minnetonka is an outer suburb of Minneapolis, uh, Southwest of the city. Um, we're pretty much surrounded by Lake Minnetonka, which is one of the largest lakes in Minnesota and a bedroom community, uh, with very little commercial and industrial business and our district. So pretty much bedroom community. We're pretty, pretty well built out for probably 35 years, very little new construction, except where, you know, they tear down a house, she built a new one, so we've relied a lot upon, uh, you know, her development of, of our program and, uh, attracting families to us who don't live in the district as well as new families to the district. We were about 7,500 students when I came to the district now because of open enrollment and new families. We're a little over 11,000. So that's probably about where we'll be. Very high performing. So we'll maybe get into a little bit of that.
Yeah, definitely. And yeah. And later on, we'll talk a little bit about, um, open enrollment in Minnesota and all of the ins and outs of that. Um, yeah. When you say high performing, I know for a fact, because I worked for many years in the state of Minnesota, that Minnetonka is one of the top districts, if not the top in Minnesota and people look to your district for leadership, for innovation. So as I noted at the outset, you you've been a superintendent for a few years, actually 51 to be exact and, you know, give us a little description of your professional journey and what trends have you observed over the years.
Well, it has been an interesting journey and, uh, yeah, you know, I think some things have changed a lot. Other things have changed very little. Uh, some of the things that have changed a lot are of course, the impact of technology, um, email, for example, which is a set of technology we're all used to now, uh, it's changed a lot over time in terms of communications, urgency of messaging, all of that. Um, but just the use of technology in our schools and classrooms fetish really impacted how children learn and, and, uh, you know, communicate with the students as well as with our parents and my first, uh, superintendency . I had the opportunity to consolidate, uh, several districts. So I think we put 22 districts together and to one during that time. And in some ways I tell people maybe I did my biggest and best work my first year.
No, it was. So I learned a lot about politics and all of that during that time as working with people to try to put those districts together. And then of course, uh, you know, in the late sixties, early seventies, we were dealing with a lot of social unrest at that time as well, for example, uh, attended both, uh, Stanford university and university of Colorado during that time. And there was a lot of evidence of, uh, rioting and destruction and up upset and unrest on both of those campuses. So, and then I had the opportunity also, uh, in the early seventies to be in Washington DC. So I was there as a time of the Watergate break yet. Oh, wow. And, uh, so all of that of course has impacted our history over time. And I was kind of on the threshold of seeing all that unfold, so that that's been fun. And then of course, uh, coming out of my PhD at the university of Colorado, Boulder and 74. You know, I've been pretty much continuously a since that time. And I've had an opportunity to work, uh, pretty much throughout the middle of the country, all the way from Cheyenne Wyoming to, um, you know, the Cincinnati Ohio area, but mostly in the middle of the country. And, uh, you know, it's been an opportunity to be in a lot of really fine districts and, uh, have an impact on, on their development. Um, I would say parenting has changed a lot over time. So, um, the support of parents has changed, uh, um, uh, we get a lot less support from parents on dealing with issues with our children and more adversarial relationship with parents. Um, kids are changing some but mostly kids are, are very much like they have been over the years, although they're certainly, uh, reflecting, uh, the changes in parenting over that time as well. Um, teachers of, of, uh, you know, in my opinion, have gotten a lot stronger over time. They're more, uh, well educated in the pedagogy and, uh, in the use of technology to support their teaching. So, yeah, you know, for example, I'm at a talk we've been able to raise students' performance dramatically in our district as we get more new teachers and I've always used a very systemic way of selecting teachers. So it's a, an extension process to make sure we're getting the teachers. We want to work with our kids. And of course, politics have changed some over time. And, uh, you know, now, as I, as I said, we're kind of backed into a time of social unrest and, um, all of that, which we've witnessed in the sixties and seventies.
Oh, wow. There's a lot to unpack there. Dr. Peterson, you know, I was a school psychologist for 33 years and worked with many, many parents over the years in four States. And I would, you know, that was my observation as well. Uh, starting in the early eighties til presently that the parents are a little more adversarial, um, and, and hold their, their, their kids a little less accountable for their, for their actions, which can make it very hard on teachers to try to modify those behaviors and improve engagement and so forth. Um, I also felt that over the, my tenure that, that, uh, the kids were basically the same. However, would you agree that during, in, in the present state of affairs regarding the changing family and the more complex climate and cultures we're living in that maybe kids are struggling a little bit more with some, uh, emotional and behavioral mental health issues?
Oh, absolutely. Um, and, uh, you know, that's, uh, I think there are probably multiple reasons for that. Certainly, uh, the political environments are growing up in social environments are growing up in a wide use of social media and all of that, um, by their parents and themselves, uh, certainly impacts them. And, uh, you know, I know that, uh, a lot of young people are worried when they're not treated right on social media. In other words, they're, they're not liked enough. And so getting bullied or getting bullied. And of course, uh, I think parents are raising their kids differently, uh, have been for maybe the last 20 years and, uh, many ways, very, very, uh, good parenting and other ways, you know, helping. And my view creates some of these anxiety situations and, uh, children who are, uh, less, uh, maybe stable emotionally. So it has meant that schools are needed to step up to that and be able to deal with the social environment and the emotional condition that children come to school and, and realizing that many times our parents are right in the background. Um, you know, whether they're helicopter parents or just more involved in kind of keeping track of their kids and making sure that he gets Rachel rushes and all that. Uh, but that's all going on as well. So it's much more dynamic in that respect. So it is changing the mix of, uh, academics and, uh, and other things that we need to do with, uh, make sure kids are successful life.
Yeah. That's so, so interesting. Um, yeah, it's, it's interesting. You mentioned that teachers have gotten stronger in terms of the evidence based pedagogy and so forth, and, and it certainly has proven out in Minnetonka with how, how well your students perform. I'm curious, does, does your district, um, and we don't have time to go into the selection process and I encourage people to reach out to you to learn about that, but do you, things like coaching, I hear a lot about coaching out in schools, uh, ongoing to develop teachers. Does Minnetonka do much of that?
Yes, we do. Uh, we have, uh, not only do we have an elaborate system for hiring teachers, we also have an elaborate system for supporting them once they started having a talk. And so we have teacher instructional coaches that are assigned to all of our teachers actually, and they've been very beneficial to the growth and evolution and development of our teachers.
Yeah, that's, that's super interesting. Again, I could dig into just that whole aspect of what happens, but we don't have time for all of that in this one podcast. Well, let me, um, let me ask you, so we talked a little bit about, uh, historical kind of how things have moved through the years. What do you think are the key factors that may impact education in the coming years?
Uh, I think technology will continue to have a major impact and frankly, uh, as a result of, uh, of the closure sort of schools and going online and all what's learning, um, I think it's going to lead to more and more of that, um, mode of learning for many students that they can, uh, uh, not only learn with their classmates, but they can do things on their own, uh, virtually. And, uh, I think that's gonna continue to grow and impact, uh, predictably, uh, colleges, but I think also elementary and secondary education. I think the other will be the continued evolution of choice. I think there's going to be more, uh, more, uh, commercial kinds of education available as well as the traditional charter schools and private schools and Brocchio schools and all that will compete with, uh, public schools. So, um, I think there's going to be a whole mix out there of the marketplace where parents are able to choose much more than they do now.
Well, it was homeschooling of course, that, uh, you know, we're kind of forcing them to do that right now and some locations with the learning. So some parents will find that that works fine for their family. Others will find, uh, you know, I can't wait till I get them back to a teacher.
Yeah. So that that's, uh, in terms of, you know, big impact things for the future technology, uh, school choice budget, uh, all of those things are going to move education. Definitely. So one of the things I know about Minnetonka is that you guys have done a lot of innovation, and I believe you developed a very unique process for how you innovate at Minnetonka. And in fact, um, is I recall district from all around the country, come and visit you and learn from you around your, in innovation, uh, processes. Could, could you describe that for us?
Yeah, it's, uh, it has been very well developed and I think, uh, recognized, uh, around the country, uh, you know, a model that works with a lot of places, I've always been innovating myself. So I've done quite a few innovations over time, uh, did innovation. And when I talk of, before we started our, uh, culture of innovation, our pipeline about 11 years ago, I think we started the training for people to get more engaged in innovation and not only looking at big things, language, immersion, or, uh, our vantage program that works with students and business and so forth, but more, uh, small innovations where maybe at a school or an individual teacher or a group of teachers might do innovation. So we've had what we call, uh, initially we call it the big idea, hunt looking for big ideas. And then we decided to call up the, I hunt for big ID or the big hunt for ideas. And so all, we use a crowdsourcing tool and called spigot, and it's as big as chewed by a lot of corporations for getting ideas into their mixture and, you know, seeing how they can improve their company or their corporation, we use it to improve our district. And so every year there's a big hunt for new ideas, and many of them are small ideas, but some of them can evolve into larger ideas. Uh, for example, coding in our district, we were, we are one of the leaders in the country in coding, and that was a big idea that came through our innovation pipeline. So, um, we have a strong culture of input from, uh, employees. We were starting to expand that to parents so that they have ways to have good ideas and, um, most of those ideas and go through a rigorous process evaluation by their colleagues. So if you submit an idea, uh, and it has a lot of interest by colleagues, they can build on that and give you a suggestion and get it to maybe be more than you invasion in the first place, or it doesn't catch on. It's not an idea that's going to work at that point, but that doesn't mean we, we don't keep it around. And, uh, you know, I always remind people that often the ideas that don't take off are just not quite ready yet. Maybe they're there to advance for people to think about it. So we did a lot of training for that. And, uh, and of course use just crowd neutral and off for several years.
Yeah. That's, that is just so amazing. And what, what, you know, a couple of things, um, I liked the notion that the idea doesn't have to be huge. It could be something small, it's easy to implement. Um, and small changes can have big impacts depending.
Yup. Well, one point that I've always made to people is that, uh, the Polaroid camera company used to make, and now they're making it a comeback, but yeah, they, they had a, an idea in their company to create digital photography, but it didn't make it to the top. It was quashed because it wasn't how you, how we're doing photography. And so, you know, for a long time, Polaroid kind of went out of business because they work digital, but it just shows you that you have those ideas out there. And if you look for them and, and nurture them, uh, often they can bear fruit.
Yeah, absolutely. It's like in, uh, you know, I work in the ed educational technology business and, you know, there's a, we do a lot of incubator kind of work where we have an idea, we try it on a small scale, then we research it, collect data to see if it works, get feedback. Um, so it sounds like you're kind of doing the same thing. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Um, I can imagine too, that not to be too negative about teachers cause they're mainly awesome, but sometimes teachers, uh, are adverse to change and your model is like they're engaged and they have ownership and it kind of changes the script.
Well, and I think at all, it also enables us to attract that kind of teacher, you know, they know that when you come to Minnetonka, your ideas can go somewhere. And so if you've got some things that you have wanted to try, it may happen in Minnetonka. So I, uh, I do know that they value it's the fact that we listened to our employees.
Yeah, absolutely. And as a psychologist, from the psychological perspective, um, having that involvement is just critical for high performance. You get so much more out of people if they feel involved. So that's, you know, all the things you do, it's just obvious why Minnetonka does, does such amazing things. Um, well, let's switch gears a little bit. Dr. Peterson, describe your approach to educational leadership. You've been a leader for a number of years. And, um, I'm also curious, have you adjusted your leadership approach given the current, uh, population of, of educators?
No, I, uh, leadership has changed, I think some over time, uh, I kind of started and, uh, as you mentioned earlier in 1967 at a time when, uh, most superintendents were autocrats, they ran their school district and they kinda told the board what to do, you know? And so, uh, that's, that's just the way it was done back down. Uh, then we went into an era where we got more involvement from employees and the community and, and show for us. And I think that's evolved to a point where it's been very helpful, the quality and the buy-in and the kinds of things that are are surfacing. And so that does take a different leadership that you have to be willing to step back and not be the main idea of personal all the time. And, uh, so that that's a big evolution. And I think just the way we treat employees has changed quite a bit over time, uh, for that autocratic era where people, you know, basically we're expected to be quiet and do their work and, uh, and, uh, be accountable for it to a time when we welcomed, uh, discussion and ideas. Obviously, uh, the unionization of education was part of that, where we had had to collaborate legally, but it also expanded into much more than just the legal contract or to, you know, ideas about lots of things. So, uh, there'd been a big evolution and, and leadership over time. And I think even in some, some places now, um, you know, the superintendent plays a very small role in leading the district. They're more facilitating and enabling people to just do their job, uh, as, uh, I've had the opportunity to be a new superintendent and, and several different places. So, um, you know, you, you want to acknowledge the great same sort of happened in their district before you got there, but you also want to make sure that people know where you would like to take the district as well. So upfront you always have that stronger leadership, I think. And then over time as people understand how you want things done, you know, you back off and let more people take charge if you will, of, of their respective aspects of the district.
That's, that's great advice. Um, so what, what you're suggesting to folks is when you come in new, you have to establish, you know, where, what your vision is and then sort of release that, uh, authority back to other folks and engage them. And yeah. Yeah. That's, that's great. Great advice for folks. Um, well, you know, earlier you talked about open enrollment in Minnesota, uh, where students can really attend any school of their choice. And, and so you, you kinda mentioned how that's affected your district. Um, maybe give us a little more context.
Yeah. Open enrollment has existed in Minnesota for quite a while, and it basically allows students anywhere. I'm going to show that to go to any other district and their own and their state aid followers, that child, no other, no other resource follows the child, no tax property tax, running follows, but state-aid does follow the child. And so, um, you know, I think most of us when that came in, we're nervous about it are we were going to lose all of our kids. So in Minnetonka, we've tried to make open enrollment work for him. And, uh, when I came to the district, they were doing a little bit of open enrollment, but mostly losing students or open enrollment. And so, um, we've turned that around over time whatsoever, our strategic planning and our, uh, efforts to recruit students from across the district to the point now where, uh, it's such a financial advantage to the districts. We've not cut our budget for 15 years. That's amazing. Everyone else should want to show it. Of course, during the recession, I had to cut their budget. I'm going to talk to, to not have to do that because we were getting enough new revenue from open enrollment. And that's primarily because it costs lash with newer students, a JG case. And then it does the main core of your student body. So that additional state aid goes to new programs for resident kids. And so we not only maintained our district, but we've, you know, improved a lot of our programs during that time. And so now, uh, there's a little bit over a third of our students who don't live in our district. They come from 50 different districts across, uh, mainly the Metro, but some outside of the Metro and, uh, families will, uh, you know, work hard to try to get into their talks and follow the processes to do that.
Yeah. It seems like a self sustaining cycle that with all of the innovation, the amazing programs, the high performance people want to come there. And I would assume that the people that, that students and families that choose to open enroll there, they're really committed to their students. And so they're, they're going to really be supportive.
Yeah. Well, and I think we're also in a, in an era where families are willing to move their child from the neighborhood school to a place that they think is gonna work better for their chil children. Know, as I tell people, when I was a kid, you went to the school down the street, I just travel lunch. Parents will not only look for a college for their kid, but they look for a kindergarten, our high school programs for their kids. And they don't mind driving and having an extra, uh, need to travel to get those children to the school they want.
Yeah. It makes sense. You know, it's so competitive in the marketplace for jobs that the, you know, you really do whatever you can to give your student the best opportunity. Absolutely. Now you mentioned, uh, in the last question about, you know, enrollment really being a strategic activity and that superintendents really need to attend to it. What did, um, what advice would you give to colleagues, uh, in that area?
Well, it's, uh, it is a bit an enterprise because, you know, you're certainly still education. It's the core of what you're trying to do, but there's some marketing involved, there's treating customers, right. And making sure that they're happy with their choice and that's our, uh, recruited, if you will, to look at your district and evaluate whether it would be best for them. So there there's, uh, some, uh, you know, enterprise there that you're seeing in business. And, uh, um, and yet, as I said, the core of the work is still provided a great education and having that be the driver for why students come to your district, but there is more more to that work. And, uh, and we found also that a lot of those Oprah roll families also move into our district eventually. So they'll start looking for a house all the time, the child from furniture second grade, and, you know, we'll move. So it's also helped to real estate market in our country.
Here? How much do you want? Name your price! Yeah. You mentioned the word marketing. And, you know, I worked for a technology company and marketing is a major part of what we do to tell our stories and to help people understand here's what we do. And maybe we have a solution that can solve one of your problems, maybe not too. Do you think a lot of superintendents are maybe afraid of that notion of marketing?
I think they are. I think that, uh, they kind of see themselves as being above that idea, but it's really just telling the story of your district and the quality and the good things that happen to students. We were losing a lot of students from our district, uh, years ago. And so we've marketed mainly to our own families, and we've just continued to do that and on a broader scale. So we always want people who are, uh, open to high quality education to consider our district, whether it's living here or open it and roll away. I do think that, uh, people have to get over that, uh, um, desire to not market, but, uh, they realize that triggers telling your story. And it's not a sales pitch to people it's just internally just telling your story and that you have to do that if you're going to compete with other districts that are, you know, are willing to take families. Yeah. I think the other big thing that we do somewhat differently is all of our principals give tours of schools to their prospective families. And, uh, you know, they do, they do those tours. So in lot of schools, I think they maybe have a clerical person do the tours. And, you know, that's not quite the same flavor for a parent thinking about a big choice of where their child goes to school. So, um, you know, we do a lot of that kind of personal touch as well.
I would guess that your principal tour with a prospective family is more than here's the gym, here's the auditorium, but talking about here's how we meet the needs of kids. And here's how we make kids feel, you know, part of the, you know, the, the culture.
Yeah, absolutely. Um, you mentioned about customer service and I've thought a lot about that recently. And, and so how, how do you kind of approach that notion of customer service to your families and have you, for example, done special training with folks on that?
Yeah, we do, uh, customer service is an important aspect of, of what we do. And, uh, you know, that's not just for open enrollment, that's for how we treat, uh, families in general, our students. And, um, yeah, you know, I think for years they attitude in schools was this is the star school. If you don't like it, you know, make other choices, but that's what we do now. We are very flexible in trying to meet the needs of families and, uh, uh, they've got special, uh, aspects to the program that they want to consider. We'll work with them on that. And should I think they realized that we will personalize that opportunity for their children, but, um, you know, just how we, uh, talk to people on the phone, how we deal with them. If they come into our school, I can greet them and show them the good things that are going on. So really even our custodians are tuned into how to treat people who are visiting the school.
Wow, fantastic. Um, change gears quickly for one final question. Um, for me, you know, some of the research I've done around school, climate's important to me and tell us about school climate, how it's, um, impacted student outcomes and you know, what kinds of things have you done in Minnetonka to support, improve climate, to meet the needs of kids?
Yeah, we, we truly believe that a school climate is a priority. Um, you, you can't get a high achievement and student success of the level you want without having a good, good, uh, school culture, school climate. And so that's been a priority for every one of our principals over, over time. Uh, what I came to the district, our high school, I had a really poor climate. And so we right away, we found a principal could turn that around. And then we found another replacement for him who could carry that out. And, you know, that's now just the way we do it as a high school. So we have 3,500 kids in our high school show. It's a big job for that principal to work with families, work with students to create the climate there, but every one of our schools and middle school and elementary schools or preschool program all work on school climate a lot and have kids be treated positively treat and families be treated positively. And so that's all now part of our culture.
Yes. And, you know, culture starts with the teachers in my opinion. And so the work you do around innovation and engaging them and having them involved, you know, they feel great about being at work every day. And in all of that sort of filters down to the kids, I would imagine.
Yeah. Yeah. So exciting. Well, we've run out of time, Dr. Peterson, and I want to thank you for sharing all of your great insights and telling us about Minnetonka, which is just a fantastic place to encourage all of our listeners to go on a, on your website at Minnetonka public schools in Minnesota, learn more, um, maybe our people, can they reach out to you and ask you a question?
Over. Okay. Interesting. Now, when I interviewed Dr. Doug Reeves, who I know is a close friend, he said under, and he explained that MIT did a whole research study on it. And said under was the way to go.
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