To new Superintendent Brian Dietz, Centennial Schools is a solid “meat-and-potatoes” district with high test scores and committed, caring staff.

Dietz, who started in July, said his challenge is to build on that by highlighting and promoting innovation and better telling the district’s story to the community.

“People understand we’re good. Let’s move to great,” Dietz said.

He’ll also need to chart a course for the district as enrollment has declined 8 percent and is expected to continue that downward trajectory for the next five years. The district now serves 6,400 students from Circle Pines, Lino Lakes, Lexington, Centerville and part of Blaine.

Dietz, 40, comes from Waseca schools, where he served as superintendent since 2010. Dietz said he’s set his goals after spending the last two months interviewing community stakeholders.

“I spent the first two months calling people and interviewing them, going out into the community. I just got perspectives on what they think,” Dietz said.

“On the positive side, I heard we do a great job educating kids, bar none. Our scores show that. Both parents and staff feel when a kid walks out of here, they are well prepared for the future. That’s really neat. The second positive I heard is about relationships. Our staff care about our kids and vice versa.”

On the other hand, “I heard we are a meat-and-potatoes school district — we offer the basics for people and do a great job with that. Beyond that, we need to enhance opportunities and experiences. I agree on a couple levels. We undersell ourselves. Sometimes we don’t talk about the things we are doing, and we are doing some things that are extremely innovative in all our buildings.”

As a way to better promote the district to the community, Dietz and other school leaders have developed three marketing catchphrases: “Centennial is a great educational environment,” “Centennial maintains high achievement” and “Centennial connects to its community.”

“We need to put that message out there. We want them to know more about us,” Dietz said.

He’s ‘a dad in the district’

Dietz grew up in the small town of Montgomery, Minn., 7 miles south of New Prague. He played football, basketball and baseball and sang in the church choir. He received his bachelor’s degree in speech communication from St. Olaf College in Northfield.

He thought he wanted to be a lawyer until a mentor teacher advised him, “You need to dig a little deeper because there is something more for you.”

That conversation led him into education. He earned his master’s of educational administration from Mankato State (now Minnesota State University Mankato) in 1998. He cut his teeth as a middle school teacher, principal and then superintendent in Southern California.

He met his wife Stacie Ebnet Dietz, also a Minnesota native, there. They have four children, ages 11, 9, 7, and 1. Their children motivated the couple to return to Minnesota.

“We both really appreciated how we grew up in Minnesota. We wanted that same experience for our kids,” Dietz said.

They are building a house in Blaine and will live in the district’s boundaries. Dietz’s children will attend Centennial Schools.

“I could pop in and gave them a hug. That’s a fun part about being a dad with kids in the district. It gives me a chance to see them,” Dietz said.

The district’s future

Dietz joins the district amid an enrollment slide. Enrollment topped out at 7,000 in 2003 before dropping to 6,400 this past school year. The district is now undertaking an enrollment and facilities study for its five elementary schools, middle school and high school.

The facilities study goes hand-in-hand with strategic planning that will help define the district’s goals and chart a future course. Waseca Schools underwent a strategic planning process under Dietz’s leadership.

“It lets you know as a taxpayer we are thinking ahead about who we are and more importantly, where we want to go,” Dietz said.

The district held off hiring a permanent principal at Blue Heron Elementary, instead appointing an interim person. That triggered concerns about possible future school closings, but Dietz said no decisions have been made.

“There are ton of options right now,” Dietz said. “We have to let the process play itself out, which will take through November. Sometime before the new year, we will have an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s a list of recommendations.’ ”

It’s about planning for the district’s future with a smaller number of students vs. reacting after that happens, he said. “It’s getting ahead of a problem, but more importantly, being really transparent and honest and saying, ‘We want to have these conversations,’ ” Dietz said.

In Waseca, Dietz oversaw the merging of the middle school with the high school. That actually improved course offerings for middle school students, he said. Before the merger, some middle school students were sitting in two study halls a day because of lack of course offerings, he said.

It isn’t just about examining the numbers.

Dietz hopes to build on programs that improve student performance, as well as to add new ones.

One program Dietz has already brought to Centennial Schools is called AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination. It’s a national college readiness system that targets middle-performing kids. It’s a partnership with Minnesota State Mankato that will start in 2014-15.

Dietz said he supports integrating more technology into the classroom experience, but that it has to be strategic. Centennial now has about 1,000 iPads, as well as thousands of computers.

“It can’t just be a tool. It has to be more transformational as well,” Dietz said.

That means taking a “researched approach” to adding technology and making sure teachers are well-trained and have a plan for new classroom technology, he said.

“It still comes down to what makes a student successful is the teacher in front of the classroom,” Dietz said. “That’s the one factor every piece of research agrees upon.”