Managing a school is like running a pizza company, says Rob Metz, St. Louis Park’s schools newly chosen superintendent.
The owner chooses what to specialize in — fast delivery, gourmet ingredients, cheap deals, large portions — and must clearly communicate that to everyone on the staff, from the kitchen crew to the delivery drivers to the managers in the corner offices. Then, after that identity is in place, employees can focus on coming up with ideas to improve their role within that identity.
“People are starting to make fun of me because I use [the pizza analogy] so much, but it works,” said Metz. “Everyone needs to know what our brand is. ... And once our system is set up, everyone should be able to contribute ideas to make it work better.”
Metz, who will step into the superintendent’s role July 1, assuming that whatever contract he and the district negotiate was approved by the school board on Tuesday, is finishing up his 15th year as a principal in the St. Louis Park district. The first nine of those 15 years were spent at Aquila Elementary School, the last six at St. Louis Park High School.
St. Louis Park already has a strong identity that sets it apart from surrounding districts, he said. “We have our own unique place in the world,” he said. “We’re not a private school, and we’re not a giant suburban school. We’re a midsize, highly academic, diverse school where people have a chance to participate in a lot of different things. Kids don’t have to specialize.”
Metz, 53, lives in Lakeville with his wife; they have two young-adult sons. His mom was a teacher and his dad was a member of the school board. His older brother is a college administrator, his younger brother is a math teacher, and all three of the brothers have wives who work in education.
When Metz took over as principal at Aquila Elementary, the state ranked it as a one-star school. It had the highest poverty level, the most diversity and the most mobility of any school in St. Louis Park.
“We can’t control poverty, we can’t control mobility, we can’t control where apartment buildings are built — that’s all out of our hands,” Metz said. “What we can control is what happens from 8 to 3, so we tried to make those hours as consistent and productive as possible.”
At Aquila, he instituted a policy of teaching math at the same time for one hour every single school day and recalibrated the curriculum to help students better address questions on state tests. After almost a decade of steady improvement, Aquila received a “Beating the Odds” award from the Minnesota Department of Education for its vastly improved state test scores.
During his tenure as principal at St. Louis Park High School, it was consistently ranked as one of the state’s best schools because of its high graduation rates and high levels of participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.
In 2010, St. Louis Park won a $4.9 million federal grant to teach schools from Los Angeles and rural Maine how to replicate its Building Assets-Reducing Risks program, which aims to reduce class failure rates among ninth-graders. St. Louis Park is applying to expand the program to 10th-graders when the grant expires in 2014.
“It was his results that really sold us,” said St. Louis Park school board Chairman Bruce Richardson. “He turned things around at Aquila. Then, taking it up a notch to the [high school], he stepped up to that plate and really knocked it out of the park.”
Tackling the achievement gap
Metz’s No. 1 priority as superintendent is closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Although St. Louis Park has made significant strides — when he was hired as high school principal, only seven African-American students were enrolled in AP/IB classes; this year there were 125 — he said state test scores have made it clear that there is ample work to be done.
Part of the solution may be hiring more teachers that reflect the district’s growing diversity, he said.
“Our teachers should look like our student body. ... The hires we make should reflect our district’s rich diversity,” said Metz. As of fall 2012, 38.9 percent of St. Louis Park’s districtwide student population came from minority populations, while only seven percent of its staff did.
Another challenge on the horizon is the approximately $17 million levy referendum St. Louis Park voters will consider in the fall, which could be a tough sell in an older city where only 13 percent of the population has children in district schools.
“Positive community relations is a big deal for us,” said Richardson. “Rob was the right man for the job.
“People are walking around with big smiles on their faces, and we couldn’t be happier with how everything went.”