After 14 years with South Washington County Schools, Dave Bernhardson will start fresh on July 1, when he begins as superintendent of the Inver Grove Heights district.
Bernhardson will succeed Deirdre Wells, who has been superintendent for nine years.
We talked with Bernhardson, a father of three, about his plans for the district and his strengths as a leader. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What initially made you interested in education?
A: I was a business major for three years in college and there was something missing. And that “something missing” was something my parents had ingrained in me. It was serving kids, basically public service, and helping to support kids in their quest to be great adults. And thus I made the switch over to education.
Q: What made you apply for the Inver Grove Heights superintendent position?
A: It had to do with some knowledge of the system, and really having what I felt was a grasp of the potential that Inver Grove Heights has for its students and its communities. You see and feel that the potential is limitless right now. The intimacy of size (the district has 3,700 students) is also a draw, because of the connections and the relationships you can establish with staff and the community.
Q: Why do you believe you were chosen for the job?
A: They had a very prescriptive profile that had been developed and the significant aspects of that profile really had to do with forming relationships, with kids, staff, parents and the community. And that’s always been a strength of mine and something that comes very naturally to me.
Q: What kind of vision do you have for the district’s future?
A: I’m working on an entry plan, which is really rooted in first spending time listening to individuals and groups to see what they feel are our strengths and challenges moving forward. From what I’ve gathered, that direction is leading toward even greater individualization for student learning.
Q: What do you mean by individualized learning? What does that look like?
A: I think some of that can be best modeled in the classroom. There’s three different types of instruction that take place — there’s large group instruction, small group instruction and individualized instruction.
I think we’ve really set teachers up for success over time on large group instruction, and we’re getting better at small group instruction, but we really need to hone the individual instruction.
And now with the tools that are available based on digital content, we can further enhance the meaning of individual student needs and that’s really what we need to work on implementing, so all our kids can be set for whatever their path may be after high school.
There’s multiple ways to do that, but it really starts with the teacher-student relationship, and then providing the content for that student to grow individually. And it involves technology — there’s no way around that.
Q: What is enrollment like in Inver Grove Heights?
A: It’s pretty stable, with slight growth. In any district you have residents that leave for another district, and one of my goals will be to have as many people as we can stay within Inver Grove Heights schools, because of what we can establish with the culture of the district.
One thing about the district is that only 20 percent of residents have kids in school. And I need to reach out not only to those 20 percent but the other 80 percent to help to grow their understanding of what’s taking place in the schools. So one of my big initiatives will be engaging the whole community in the educational process, somehow, some way.
Q: Describe your leadership style. What’s distinctive about it?
A: Relationships are at the foremost, but at the same time I really work to empower people in their leadership capacity, and that means any job that someone does. I’ve also had great success with putting processes in place that bring about widespread involvement from people both within and outside the district.
When I was a principal on special assignment, I put in place some significant processes that allowed anybody and everybody that wanted to be involved to be involved in reshaping what was taking place. And that brings together the community and brings buy-in to whatever you’re trying to accomplish.
Q: What aspects of your time with South Washington County Schools are you most proud of?
A: I had the opportunity to bring about a successful Spanish Immersion program, which began 10 years ago. That format has brought about significant opportunities for students and families. The success of it has been phenomenal.
Q: What lessons from being a teacher and principal will you apply to the superintendent role?
A: My perspective is you have to be the same person you are no matter what job you do. And that’s rooted in being yourself and forming those relationships that grow people in their trust of and belief in you.
Q: What is your personality like, generally? Hobbies or interests? Family?
A: I’m one of those people who looks at anything as an opportunity. I’m a very family-oriented person: I have three kids (a junior, an eighth-grader and a sixth-grader), my wife is a third-grade teacher, and we spend so much time following our kids and being a part of their lives because they’re actively participating in sports and school activities. Everything I do is first related to my family and then related to, “How do you serve the school community that you’re working with?”
During the interview process, someone asked what I do to relax and I said, “You know, there’s two things I like to do: I like to mow the lawn and I like to clean cars.” They sound like chores, but for me they’re just those peaceful, productive things I like to do. Isn’t that goofy? I’m a sports person, too. I’ve coached my kids in various things and I very much enjoy that.