Facing a rapidly approaching first day of school, teachers and staff members were scrambling to help finish new classrooms at six Anoka-Hennepin elementary schools.

They installed ceiling tiles, hauled trash and swept floors. And much to their surprise, David Law, the district’s new superintendent, showed up to pitch in.

“He worked right alongside everybody else unpacking boxes and making sure everything was ready to go,” said LeMoyne Corgard, head of the district’s teachers union. “That sent a very good message to our staff members. He’s willing to do the work.”

Law is taking over at an important time for the state’s largest school district, which is still recovering from a bruising lawsuit and federal probe of bullying of gay and lesbian students. That messy chapter didn’t do much to help the district’s image, one influenced by its rural roots and conservative politics.

But Law is focused on writing a new chapter, one that emphasizes the district’s considerable success closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

“We’re going to change how everyone else sees us,” Law said. “We’re going to focus on the kids. But we’re going to show the nation that this is a fantastic school district.”

Challenges lie ahead for Law. He’s got to mend the relationship with the teachers union, which came perilously close to voting to strike last school year. He must also contend with the fact the district is growing increasingly more urban with the influx of poor students, many of whom are recent immigrants.

A former offensive lineman in football, Law is racking up accolades for his affable nature, sense of humor and willingness to work closely with colleagues. He’s become a regular fixture at school events — everything from football games to marching band performances — and is holding regular coffee chats with community members.

District residents like that Law is from the area and understands it. Despite working at White Bear Lake as both a principal and assistant superintendent, his three sons have always attended school in Anoka-Hennepin.

“This is a dream job,” Law said. “It really is. This is where my roots are.”

Every job counts

Many of Anoka-Hennepin’s parents and students were introduced to Law via a quirky video that shows the newly named superintendent mowing the grass, driving the bus, coaching the swim team and performing most of the jobs within the district.

The message was simple: “We can’t do it alone.”

“I know someone who is a custodian that has worked here for a number of years who said that was the first time he really felt appreciated,” said Tess DeGeest, executive director of the Anoka-Hennepin Educational Foundation. “And that’s not a dig on our past. It’s a compliment to David, who’s working hard to establish an inclusive environment.”

The video also offers a glimpse into Law’s professional past. He really was a swim coach. And he did get his bus driver’s license when he was a high school principal.

The youngest of seven siblings, Law was born in Burlington, Iowa, but his family moved around as his father worked for a company that held government contracts. They moved to Coon Rapids when Law was in fifth grade but left a few years later. The family ultimately returned when he was a senior.

“I went to eight schools in 12 years, and the fact that all those different people saw something good in me, it was pretty amazing,” Law said. “It’s why I became a teacher.”

Anoka roots

His first stint in the district started in 1992 when he landed a teaching gig at Coon Rapids High School and taught there for six years. After a brief stint as an administrator in Mounds View, he returned to Anoka-Hennepin as an assistant principal at the now-closed Sandburg Middle School.

“He worked really well with challenging students,” said Coon Rapids High School Principal Annette Ziegler, who worked with Law at Sandburg. “He told parents, ‘We are never going to give up on your child.’ And he never did.”

In 2007, Law got a job in White Bear Lake, first as a middle school principal and then as an assistant superintendent. While there, Law was involved in district initiatives that changed how guidance counselors were deployed, focused on how teachers were trained and evaluated, and laid the foundation for the middle schools to offer the international baccalaureate program.

“David isn’t afraid to try something new,” said White Bear Lake Superintendent Mike Lovett.

Professionally, White Bear was a good fit for Law. But commuting each day from Andover took its toll.

“To do this job well, you need to be rooted in your community,” he said. “And I wanted to be connected to my kids. White Bear was so welcoming. I loved that community. But I was trying to be present in two communities.”

Supporting teachers

Law said his primary goal for the district is to support teachers.

“We’ve never have had to be more adaptable to changing standards and curriculum needs and do so in a time of tight budgets,” he said.

Since taking over, Law got right to work meeting routinely with union leaders.

“I hope we’re beyond that,” Corgard said of the contract strife. “My gut tells me that’s what David wants. Our members are vocal and engaged, and he’s shown a willingness to listen.”

These days, Law is focused on improving technology for students and building on significant gains in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. In coming months, the district will be crafting its vision for how students use technology, Law said.

He also wants to continue to boost student proficiency rates and make sure students are prepared for a college or career.

“I tell students all the time that they’re going to live 50 years or more after you graduate,” he said. “That’s a long time. Put yourself in a position to be happy and where you have choices. That’s the David Law graduation speech.”