“Hagdog” – Lessons from a Mentor

HagdogThis is the last week of school in Santa Ana.  Along with graduation and the end of a school year come transitions.  We experience the end of something old and the beginning of something new.  Often, impending transitions bring a certain sense of uncertainty – and yet at the same time we experience the rush of new possibilities and adventures.

That’s how I’m feeling about the departure of Dr. David Haglund, who is leaving his post as the Deputy Superintendent here in Santa Ana to take on a new challenge as Superintendent of Pleasanton Unified up in the Bay Area.  Beyond some Bay Area jealousy, I’m feeling sadness to be losing a friend and mentor.  David will always be the one who took a chance on me – hiring me straight from a charter school system and empowering me to bring a fresh perspective to our shared work.  On paper, he called my position “school renewal.”  In practice, my hiring was a call to challenge the status quo and agitate for a system that could more authentically and effectively prepare students for the very uncertain world in which we all find ourselves.

While I learned a lot from Dr. Haglund – “Hagdog” as some like to call him – there are a few lessons that he seems uniquely qualified to share.  They are concepts that have deeply shaped my own leadership perspective and practice.

The Skunkworks

David is one of the most gifted strategic thinkers I’ve ever worked with.  His mind kneads situations in different ways and directions until possibilities arise.  And he’s patient.  He knows the danger of unnecessarily pressing an issue when it isn’t “ripe.”  He waits for that moment – the opening – when things come together like pulling a common thread all the way from beginning to end.  It seems effortless when it finally comes together.

All the while David worked the backchannels.  Sometimes, the backchannel was a concrete feature, like during a leadership meeting when he encouraged people in the room to text their “in the moment” thoughts and responses to what they were hearing up on a big projector screen.  Sometimes the backchannel took the form of informal conversations – in parking lots, on the sidelines of football games, and during impromptu encounters in the hallway.  He was constantly priming stakeholders.  He was always planting seeds, with the faith that the moment for germination and growth would come – even if it took a little time.

My approach is often the opposite – to burst through the front door with new and well-funded initiatives and programs in hand.  Sometimes I would get frustrated when David would kindly but firmly redirect my thinking.  He constantly talked about the need to encourage distributed ownership.  He was always afraid that if we didn’t allow people to figure things out for themselves – to grind a little – that initiatives and programs would disappear when the money dried up (which, in public schools, it often does).  He wanted to get the work into the marrow of the organization, and not settle for pretty adornments.  He always took the long view.

Access & Pathways

David’s path to educational leadership hasn’t always been strait forward.  He likes to tell students about his own circuitous path in life, including dropping out of high school for a time.  Honestly, it makes me cringe a bit each time I hear it.  But it is genuine.  It is the story he tells because it is the story of his life.  David’s story  fuels his passion for opening doors and pathways for students – even when it comes in unconventional ways.

David has been a champion of our educational options schools – alternative schools filled with students whose own pathways simply don’t conform to the traditional educational experience.  Under his direction, our district has added a night program for students who would rather work during the day.  He revamped our community day school, recruiting talented site leadership who brought a new vision to the learning opportunities for our most troubled and challenged students.  Two years later, what was once a school only spoken about in hushed tones is now rebranded as REACH Academy, and will be moving into a new campus as possibly the first and only WASC accredited community day school in the state of California.  There is no doubt in my mind that Santa Ana’s success raising graduation rates well-above state and county averages has come, in part, due to David’s focus on the pathways for students who just a few years ago would have opted to drop out.

One of David’s largest achievements has been giving the students of Santa Ana access to the digital world that defines our economy and modern society.  Prior to his arrival, the district had about 8,000 electronic devices serving a student population of over 50,000.  David quickly set to reverse this trend, introducing an Access for All campaign that has put “learning devices” and digital access in the hands of every student.  Now the district has more devices than students, along with a robust wireless backbone that permeates the district.  This system-wide commitment was not borne out of a belief that a Chromebook and internet connection would magically transform the learning experience in classrooms.  Rather, it stemmed from a belief that we cannot even predict all of the ways that young people will access learning when they have the right tools.  Yes, there was a pedagogical purpose behind integrating technology into instruction, but the real motivation was much more about the simple belief that our students should have access to the same tools and opportunities as others.

Connecting with Kids

Ask anyone what is unique about David’s leadership and they will likely answer that it is the way he connects directly with students.  It’s not something he does as a leadership strategy.  For David, it comes from a much more personaI desire to interact with and offer individual mentorship to students.  It’s something that David feels he must do.

And that makes sense.  While the rest of us are running around talking about student-centered schools and personalization, David embodies both in his day to day practice.  He doesn’t make the assumption, as many education leaders do, that improving the systemic outcomes is sufficient.  Yes, David is committed to the improvement of quantitative outcomes in a broad sense.  He has pushed for higher graduation rates and levels of English Learner reclassification.  He brought us MAP testing and growth percentiles.  But incremental gains aren’t enough for David.  He recognizes that he has been blessed with a tremendous amount of privilege and power, and that it is incumbent on him to share his social capital with the students and community around him.

That means picking up the phone and calling a university that isn’t sure about admitting a student.  That means buying an instrument for a student who can’t afford a replacement.  That means hosting dinners with alumni in any city he finds himself just to check-in and make sure students know they have support.  He’s the fan base for many individual students who are engaged in the heroic and exhausting struggle of overcoming intergenerational poverty.  He knows he alone can’t get to everyone.  But he tries to model what it can look like and set an example for the other leaders and adults in the system.  He envisions a school district where every employee takes a personal interest and makes a personal investment in individual students outside of what they are “paid” to do.

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