During Jeff Ridlehoover's first two months on the job, Sartell-St. Stephen schools garnered national attention after an equity audit spurred fierce backlash from parents and residents.
The external audit — approved by the school board well before Ridlehoover started as superintendent for the central Minnesota district of 4,200 students — found students were concerned about racism, homophobia and discrimination.
But fallout from the audit's results included tense board meetings and an appearance from a student on the nationally televised program "Fox and Friends" that criticized the district's lack of transparency regarding the audit.
Ridlehoover, 47, said the debacle has distracted the administration and board from focusing on the students. He ultimately recommended that the board scrap the audit and its recommendations in favor of a new committee to be created by the district this school year, which begins Tuesday.
Before Ridlehoover started at Sartell, he worked for public schools in Lakeville, Anoka-Hennepin, Wayzata and Mounds View districts. He also has been an adjunct professor at Hamline University's School of Education since 2015.
In a written response to the Star Tribune, Ridlehoover talked about his views on leadership, how he helped close the achievement gap in metro schools and how he hopes to move forward addressing equity in Sartell. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: You have a science education background. How did that evolve into an administrative role?
A: My dad is a retired chemical engineer who worked at 3M for 36 years. While my parents encouraged my siblings and I to try different things, we all found varying degrees of interest in chemistry, physics and math.
During my undergraduate time at the University of Minnesota, I also worked at 3M. I found the work interesting and enjoyable, but I also knew that I loved to work with young people and a career in education would allow me to combine my love of chemistry with my passion for making a difference in the lives of students.
I began my career as a teacher and coach, which then led me down a path of school leadership. I have loved every job I have ever had and it's been a blessing to meet and interact with so many wonderful people over the years.
Q: You worked on Hamline's administrator licensure program. How has that shaped your views on leadership and education?
A: Leadership was never meant to be hierarchical and the best leaders have the ability to recognize and build capacity in those around them. My doctoral dissertation centered around school culture and climate and how collective leadership enhances and enriches learning outcomes. The results show a clear correlation between shared leadership and student achievement. I believe strongly in this premise and share this with the aspiring principals and my colleagues.
Q: Sartell-St. Stephen has undergone several changes in the past few years, including the opening of a new high school and the reconfiguration of district buildings by grade level. Do you have plans for other initiatives you want to implement in the first years of your tenure?
A: The facility work and subsequent grade-level reconfiguration were very well done. I am looking forward to engaging all of our stakeholders — including students, staff, parents, school board members and community members at large — in our strategic planning process. Together, we will focus on innovation and continuous improvement to guide our collective vision.
Q: When the results of the equity audit completed by an outside organization were released, some parents and community members questioned the methodology, questions and findings. What's the status of the new student experience committee being created by the district? What do you hope it will accomplish?
A: We are in the process of collecting applications from students, staff and district residents, and are on track to have about 100 participants. A majority of applicants have shared thoughtful comments about their experiences in the district, along with insight into what they hope to create for our students, staff and families. I am confident this committee will work cooperatively and respectfully to achieve our goals.
Committee members will dig into the student experience from a variety of angles with the purpose of creating school environments that will foster not only academic achievement, but also safe, supportive and welcoming spaces for each and every student. Once consensus is formed around identifying our current reality and a shared understanding of our ideal outcomes, work will begin on our action steps and core process, which will include established metrics to ensure that our objectives are met and we are accountable in our efforts.
Q: Sartell-St. Stephen continuously outperforms surrounding districts in terms of test scores and graduation rates. Some say that's related to the district's lower percentage of special education students, students eligible for free and reduced lunches (a common indicator of poverty) and English-learners. How do Sartell's demographics define the district? And how does the district ensure those often-underserved populations are being served?
A: Like all organizations and municipalities, schools and districts are incredibly unique. This said, our focus will continue to be on each individual student to ensure they are cared for and provided the necessary resources to be the very best versions of themselves. This includes those who are already experiencing high levels of success, those who currently reside in the "academic middle" and those who have traditionally experienced obstacles or barriers. This work belongs to all of us and we will meet these challenges by opening our minds, hearts and ears and to truly listen to our students and families.
Q: You have said that you helped close achievement gaps and focused on equity in Mounds View, which has two high schools in communities with vastly different demographics. Can you talk more about this?
A: The only way we can close what is often referred to as the achievement gap is to do so one student at a time. As a parent of four children myself, I know that each one of them has strengths as well as opportunities for personal growth. As educators, we must recognize that this is true of all students and rather than defining students by their ZIP code, gender, ethnicity or physical limitations, we look at them as people with unique gifts and talents that make each one of them valuable members of our school community.
In Mounds View, the work we did involved analyzing student data, comparing results to state standards, listening to students and teachers, and monitoring and adjusting instruction. This was done at each of our high schools, both with high levels of success.
In fact, both schools annually rank in the Top 25 of all Minnesota high schools (as does Sartell High School).
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299