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A look at the two leaders spearheading reforms in Minnesota’s largest charter-school network

“To have them both in place has led to a huge reinvention of who we are and what we do,” said Becky Juntunen, board chair of Minnesota Transitions Charter School.

Dennis Carlson, left, and Keith Lester are co-superintendents of Minnesota Transitions Charter School.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

With more than 80 years of combined experience — and failed attempts at retiring in common — Dennis Carlson and Keith Lester have found themselves in yet another school leadership position. They are doing a job share with the superintendency at Minnesota Transitions Charter School (MTCS).

Together, they’re sitting at the helm of the largest group of charter schools in the state, with nine schools serving close to 3,500 students in grades K-12, both in classrooms and through online courses. The offerings include a sobriety high school in Minneapolis, along with other specialized Twin Cities-based programs that focus on things like leadership and the STEM subjects.

In terms of student demographics, these charter schools can vary quite a bit from one school to the next, especially when it comes to the portion who are only enrolled in the affiliated online program, Minnesota Connections Academy. But, for the most part — especially in the seat-based programs — Lester says they’re largely serving students of color with high rates of poverty, homelessness, special education and English Learner status.

According to state standardized testing data, less than a third of MTCS students tested proficient in math in 2017. Nearly half tested proficient in reading. While improving academic outcomes is a large focus for new leadership, it was one of many pressing issues that the duo inherited when they signed on to help get the district back on course.

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Most recently, Carlson had spent five years leading the Anoka-Hennepin district — the state’s largest, and arguably one of its most politically polarized — through a rash of student suicides that generated national scrutiny and entered the district into a now-expired federal consent decree to address harassment issues, with an eye toward LGBT student safety.

Lester retired from leading the much smaller — and financially strapped — Brooklyn Center district in 2013. He then stepped in to oversee the West Metro Education Program, as the integration district transitioned from managing schools to becoming a program-based organization focusing on advancing equity through professional development.

While it’s too early to say whether their latest endeavor — co-leading the MTCS network out of their shared office, housed in a building shared by some of the network’s high school programs and a Sprint store, located in the Longfellow neighborhood — will succeed in meeting all of their goals, those working alongside them say this powerhouse duo already has many feeling hopeful that things are moving in the right direction.

“If we would have continued down the path we were on, we would not have been in existence,” said Becky Juntunen, MTCS board chair, who’s been with the network for 11 years. “To have them both in place has led to a huge reinvention of who we are and what we do.”

A series of reforms

Carlson came on board as an interim superintendent in the fall of 2016, still a bit emotionally drained from his time at Anoka-Hennepin, he says, but not yet ready to step away from school leadership entirely. The following January, he hired Lester to come on board to serve as principal at an elementary school in need of strong leadership. Together — with his experience leading in a highly politicised environment and Lester’s experience building community partnerships to meet students’ needs in a holistic way — they signed on to lead the following year. They divided the workload, according to their strengths, and each agreed to take a part-time pay check.

For Carlson, that work entailed making a number of tough staffing and financial decisions, to set the charter network back on a path toward stability. “It was clear, they were in severe financial shape, when I arrived,” Carlson said. “And I do enjoy fixing stuff.”

So he set to work, creating a cabinet so that there’d be shared decision making moving forward, and cleaning up contracts with outside vendors that were poorly structured and, in some cases, bordered on fraudulent, he said. Of the 10 contracts that he investigated, only two survived his scrutiny.

As he cleaned house on wasted expenses, he made restoring some of the fine arts electives that had been cut due to budgeting woes a priority. That included opening a recording studio, hiring an arts teacher and more.

Lester has a knack for student recruitment, equity-based professional development and forging partnerships with other schools and community organizations. For instance, he’s been spearheading an effort to create the network’s first comprehensive policy manual, so expectations around harassment and the like are no longer in question. He also facilitated the creation of an equity committee and has staff looking at new restorative practices initiatives and more culturally relevant curriculum materials.

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“Part of what drew me was not having to do the organizational stuff,” Lester said, noting the bulk of those tasks fall to Carlson. “I did it, but I was able to do this stuff, which I really liked to do.”

A complementary combo

The two are expected to phase out by June, with the goal of passing the baton to one new full-time superintendent. But even though having two leaders sometimes complicated communications, Kelly Dietrich, MTCS’s special education director, says she’ll be sad to see them both go. She had worked for the charter network for a few years, but left in 2014, frustrated with the current leadership. When she heard the Carlson-Lester duo had started making some much-needed changes, she came back to serve the students that she missed.

“I need both a connection to the community and a strong fiscal and political leader,” she said, referring to her current role with MTCS. “I don’t know that you can always find that in one person. So having the opportunity to work with both, for me, has been incredibly advantageous. They’re two mentors I can learn from.”

Keeping educators like Dietrich on staff is a huge priority, say both superintendents. Charter schools — which aren’t bound to teachers unions — often struggle with high teacher and administrator turnover. There’s huge value in being able to retain staff who know the students and have undergone professional training on-site.

“When we look at the leadership within our district, our longest serving employee has been there for 19 years,” Juntunen said, adding she’s their most senior English teacher with just 11 years of teaching experience.

Given the relative inexperience of current staff, who’d like to advance the initiatives sparked by Carlson and Lester, Juntunen says the connections, experiences and perspectives that both men bring to the table have been invaluable.

“It’s so encouraging to watch them work, and to watch them interact — both with each other and with other people — and just to know how their years of experience kind of finessed their ability to connect with people and to really bring out the best in everybody — from the custodian to the lunch lady to every teacher in the district,” she said. “And nothing fazes them. Nothing.”