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ST. CLOUD — After more than a decade working in St. Cloud schools, Laurie Putnam has ascended to the top spot.

In July, the 48-year-old started as superintendent for the district of about 10,000 students. She had been assistant superintendent of secondary education for the past three years.

She has big goals — such as implementing for the first time a student advisory committee that reports directly to her.

"Students spend a lot of their lives with us, so I believe we owe it to them to listen to them," said Putnam, who succeeds her mentor Willie Jett, the superintendent since 2013.

She's is also making a commitment that by the year 2025 every student will graduate with either work experience, college credit or an industry certification — an initiative that's already well underway through the district's College and Career Pathways program.

Putnam also plans to stay the course on initiatives implemented during Jett's tenure such as more individualized education, reducing suspensions to keep kids in school, more mental health resources and more resources to support the growing population of English-language learners.

"I think the legacy [Jett] leaves is really focusing on every student having access and opportunity," Putnam said. "One of my charges from the board is to keep building on the great work that's already done."

The demographics in St. Cloud schools have shifted dramatically in the past decade. Although the cities that make up St. Cloud school district are still majority-white, students of color comprise a majority of district enrollment. And compared to surrounding districts, St. Cloud has higher percentages of students in poverty, enrolled in special education or who do not speak English as their first language.

Many students also come to the district without literacy in their first language — often because of interrupted or limited schooling opportunities in their native country — which impacts their academic growth.

"She understands many real problems and systemic issues," said Amy Trombley, vice president of education for the Partner for Student Success organization, who has worked with Putnam on career readiness initiatives. "She has the vision of how to support people while also recognizing that things need to improve."

Putnam also served the district as a counselor and assistant principal at South Junior High School and principal at Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph. Putnam said being a counselor offered a broader view of how school systems operate. That inspired her to get her superintendent's license.

"I was drawn to the big-picture thinking — really looking at how all the parts of a system work together or not to support students achievement, to support staff growth and family involvement," she said.

For district parents such as Julie Lunning, the board's pick was a no-brainer. Lunning, who is president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, said she first met Putnam when she had children enrolled at Kennedy.

Every day, Lunning said, Putnam would be outside to welcome every kid.

"She'd greet every bus, every child, every car — whether it was hot out or raining or snowing," Lunning said. "I'd leave that school with the biggest smile on my face knowing that somebody really cared about my kids."

Putnam is married to state Sen. Aric Putnam, a Democrat who represents Senate District 14. Despite her political connection, Laurie Putnam is working to keep politics — especially polarizing national topics such as critical race theory and COVID precautions — out of the conversations on what's best for kids.

"When the external political world starts to try to bring those kinds of conversations into public schools, I think it certainly can be challenging," she said. "Every family sends their child to us with hopes and dreams — and our job is to meet those, regardless of background."