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As he recently guided visitors through Farmington High School, Superintendent Jay Haugen stopped to show off the new Tiger Lounge and Jungle.

Students perused their iPads in cozy booths and at high-top tables in the Tiger Lounge, while the Jungle is a former book storage room turned into a gym with weights and kettlebells along the wall.

Teachers worked with architects to design both spaces with no input from Haugen. That’s how he likes it, he said.

“It takes that radical trust,” he said. “I can’t have my hopes and dreams met as a superintendent unless I turn it totally over to others.”

The Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) in November named Haugen its Superintendent of the Year, citing his philosophy of personalized learning and community outreach. This week he will attend the American Association of School Administrators convention in Los Angeles, along with top school leaders from other states.

Haugen, 59, has made a career of giving teachers freedom in their classrooms and students autonomy over their learning. Over eight years he has brought waves of change to the exurban district of 7,000 students, making it among the first in the state to distribute iPads to all and to implement flexible learning days to enable students to learn at home when school is canceled by bad weather.

“Jay is one of our most innovative superintendents in the state,” said Gary Amoroso, MASA’s executive director, noting the number of educators who tour Farmington schools each year. “I just know people think the world of him.”

Haugen was elected president of MASA for 2013-14 and has served on several MASA committees.

While in Farmington, Haugen has championed an elementary school devoted to individualized learning, implemented scheduling and instructional changes so the high school operates more like a college, and built what is believed to be the state’s largest public solar panel array.

“People really admire his passion,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, a regional lobbying group. “[He] really thinks we’re still locked in an education system from a prior era that really needs to be updated.”

The changes haven’t come without pushback. Some parents complain that iPads don’t work for every student. Others say that the days when students learn at home can overburden them.

Given Farmington High’s low poverty rate, Star Tribune data indicate that 70 to 80 percent of students should be meeting Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) standards in reading and math. But just a little more than a third actually did in the 2017-18 school year.

Haugen said that MCA scores have a limited role, and that many students opt out of taking the tests. “We know that test scores are not correlated at all with how you do in life,” he said.

Succession of school roles

Haugen’s tendency to think differently began early in life, when he was a farm boy growing up near Valley City, N.D. He considered becoming an actor or a doctor but began his career teaching science at a South Dakota secondary school.

After graduate school at North Dakota State University, a series of jobs followed, including curriculum and staff development coordinator for a group of districts near Redwood Falls, Minn., and coordinator of a school improvement and leadership program for the Minnesota Department of Education.

In Sleepy Eye, Minn., where Haugen was school superintendent for 10 years starting in the mid-1990s, Marcia Marti remembers him as a strong communicator who showed up for his job interview in cowboy boots.

Sleepy Eye had a large population of Hispanic migrant students who missed a lot of school when they returned to Texas for the winter, said Marti, a longtime school board member. Haugen took a busload of teachers to visit the Texas schools, where they met with teachers to align their curriculums. The Sleepy Eye district started several academic programs to help the migrant students catch up — and it worked, Marti said, with students advancing two grade levels for each year.

Haugen moved to the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district in 2006 and helped bring successful magnet schools to a rapidly diversifying district, said Helen Fisk, then principal at Henry Sibley High School. Haugen quickly got the ball rolling on an Alternative Learning Center the district had been talking about for years, Fisk said.

Fisk said Haugen had a knack for playing to staff members’ strengths, making it OK to take risks and fail. “He’s just one of the most positive and optimistic people I’ve ever met or worked for,” she said.

But the entire school board in West St. Paul turned over in just a few years, Haugen said, and it wanted “something more traditional.” He decided it was time for a change and landed the job in Farmington.

Taking a chance

Haugen was hired in Farmington in 2011. His salary for this school year is $202,579, and he’s in the second year of a three-year contract.

When he arrived in Farmington, “there was a lot of contention in the district,” said Tera Lee, a school board member at the time. There was apprehension at first about Haugen’s iPad initiative — Lee said there was a time when the iPads came up at every family gathering — but it has lessened over time, she said.

Parent Brenda Reedy is in the anti-iPad camp because, she said, they don’t work for students who have learning challenges and struggle to direct themselves, like her son, who was attending Farmington High but recently dropped out.

“They do a blanket policy of ‘They’re good for all,’ and they’re not,” Reedy said. “A lot of special ed families feel the same way.”

About a year after the iPads arrived, Haugen floated a teacher-driven idea with the school board: a project-based school called Gateway Academy where students would learn at their own pace. “People either loved it or they hated it,” Lee said.

Gateway is now in its fifth year, though with fewer grades and students than when it began.

The Farmington district has other ideas in the works. A program at Boeckman Middle School called Interstellar began this year, and a similar initiative called Tiger House is planned for next year at the high school. The programs are competency-based, meaning that students move on when they can show they have mastered a given skill.

Haugen said he’s been a much better superintendent in Farmington than at the other districts he’s worked for. Even so, he said, no one is more surprised than he that he’s made it for 23 years in the high-stakes superintendent business.

“I never liked telling [people] what to do,” he said. “I do like to inspire people to think differently, to take a chance.”