From a Rural Start to a National Spotlight

by Jay P. Goldman

As a South Dakota farm boy, Ken Dragseth grew up surrounded by an extended family full of educators, including an uncle who later became a California superintendent and a father who served 10 years on the local school board. So the merits of solid schooling weren’t lost on him, even as a youngster in Rutland, S.D., where the district enrollment totaled 250.

“I remember vividly the day my dad told us he was going to run for school board . … He told all of us that he was concerned that we get an outstanding education so that we could have choices after we graduated from high school,” Dragseth recalls.

Today, in a setting that’s a world apart socioeconomically but just one state apart geographically, Dragseth continues to apply his father’s wisdom in his role as superintendent in Edina, Minn., a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. It’s the only place he’s worked as an educator, joining the school system in 1967 as a math teacher.

His 11 years in the top post of the 7,100-student district were recognized in February when Dragseth was named the 16th National Superintendent of the Year, an award co-sponsored by Aramark ServiceMaster Facility Services and AASA. The honor will allow him on May 24 to present a $10,000 scholarship check to a deserving student at his alma mater.

Though Edina enjoys the fruits of an upper-middle-class support, Dragseth has made a mark by championing the needs of the underserved. Three years ago, as he collected brochures at various student awards ceremonies in his district, the superintendent began to see a disturbing pattern in gender distribution: Girls far outnumbered boys on the honor rolls and in receiving other academic awards. To study the disparity, he collaborated with a researcher, whose findings into Edina’s underachieving male students now are being applied to staff development on differentiated teaching and learning.

Dragseth also has taken a sincere role in building a consortium of school districts across the region to promote desegregation. In one initiative, Edina educates 105 low-income students from Minneapolis under an agreement with the city schools. He also pushed vigorously for Edina to build a magnet elementary school with a global affairs theme for students regionwide. After several contentious public meetings, the state legislature failed to fund the land purchase, scuttling the plan.

In a community where only 3 percent of the students qualify for the federal lunch program, Dragseth draws admiration from colleagues for his passionate support of desegregation.

Carol Johnson, superintendent in Minneapolis, highlighted his willingness to take on that controversial issue in her letter nominating Dragseth for the National Superintendent of the Year honor. She noted: “Ken nonetheless was willing to risk his professional career to promote the ideals of diversity and equity within his community and the entire metro area.”

Dragseth, acknowledging some battle scars, conceded: “It would be easier politically and emotionally not to get involved.”

The superintendent probably is best known outside his home turf as the architect of one of the first successful districtwide plans to alter school start times to accommodate adolescent sleep patterns. The opening bell at Edina High School moved from 7:25 to 8:30 a.m. in 1996.

With 36 years invested in the same community, he has cultivated powerful relationships with staff and community forces to pull off such dramatic reforms.

Administrators in Edina said they especially appreciate the superintendent's frequent communications, his weekly voicemail updates, his regular sharing of information about state policy changes and his informal school visits.

Dragseth also finds ways to make an impression doing the mundane, such as riding a school bus on the opening day of school. One year he was aboard a bus whose driver became the object of an angry tirade from a mother at a pickup stop. Hearing the commotion, Dragseth walked up the aisle, only to discover the nasty words coming from a district employee.

"A few days later I came across her in the hallway," Dragseth says. "All I said was, 'It's nice to see you in a chipper mood.'"

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: