Don’t Forget to Celebrate

by Chris Bjerklie (@ChrisBjerklie), Principal, J.A. Hughes Elementary School


Each May I find myself reflecting on the current school year and wondering if J.A. Hughes Elementary School made a difference in the lives of our students. Did we better our students? Did we better our school? Is our community of Red Lake Falls better because of our actions?

Like most all of you, we have multiple forms of data and assessments telling us how our students performed over the year. We look at MCA results to measure growth from year to year. We look at formative and summative assessment for proof of the difference we made in student learning and how to drive our instruction. Did our students respond to the interventions we gave? Did we make our students better people for the world in which we live?

This year J.A. Hughes Elementary and its 190 students in Northwest Minnesota did its part to better the world. The best part is not a single test score will show the impact!

Every April in Red Lake Falls the Diane Brumwell Memorial Hoops for Hope basketball tournament takes place. It is more than a tournament though; it is a spaghetti feed, silent auction, fundraiser, and a basketball tournament. Hoops for Hope is organized by Diane’s sons Jason and Ryan, husband Dick, and daughters Heather and Stephanie. Due to the wonderful people involved, Hoops for Hope continues to grow each year from its humble beginning thirteen years ago.

Hoops for Hope is made up of a group of everyday people that have become one big, extended family. When this family gets together, they do their part to better the world by raising funds to rid the world of cancer. Every penny raised during the Hoops for Hope weekend is donated to the V Foundation to help fund research to end cancer.

This year J.A. Hughes Elementary School joined the family and jumped in full swing. We challenged our students to donate $1,500. If we met our school goal, 4 teachers and I would get Mohawks.  What happened next was amazing! Over the next 2 weeks J.A. Hughes Elementary didn’t just meet this goal, we smashed the goal – to the tune of $2,505.00! So, we celebrated in true J.A. Hughes Elementary School fashion. Four teachers and I got Mohawks and others dyed their hair. There was lots of laughing, chanting, smiling, and a few tears were shed.


Undeniably, we made a difference in the world. The difference I’m referring to is not measured by tests, report cards or any other form of assessment though. The difference I’m referring to is almost impossible to measure. We made a difference; we bettered the world.

“The difference I’m referring to is not measured by tests, report cards or any other form of assessment.”

Some might say we wasted valuable instruction time in the heart of MCA season. Instead, I say we learned some valuable lessons over the 2 weeks we raised funds. We learned it is okay to give and not receive a prize. We learned it is okay to celebrate an accomplishment. We learned it is okay to help someone you’ll never meet. We learned that it takes everyone to reach a goal. Most importantly, we learned that a small elementary school in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota with 190 students has the potential to change the world!

As you are ending the school year, don’t forget to celebrate! Missing an hour of instruction during the school day will not cause the world to end. All too often we look at what else we could have done, or have yet to do instead of all we accomplished. We have all accomplished great things over the last 9 months, don’t forget to acknowledge them!

Have a great summer, but don’t forget to celebrate first!


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Lessons Learned as a Focus School

by Jen Larva (@jlarva4371), proud principal of Lowell Elementary School in the Duluth Public School District


As we are wrapping up our four-year designation as an MDE Focus school, I spent some time celebrating our work with my leadership team. I started on this journey with the team after they had completed their first year in the process. The struggle of putting together a Leadership Team structure and defining the work to be completed the first year is often mentioned as we realize how easy it all seems now.

Our leadership team has definitely grown into the role and is currently able to share the knowledge and experiences gained with the other teams being implemented across our district. The following are a few key lessons learned as we received our MDE supports and training and made significant improvements to the growth and achievement of our students:

Lesson 1: Leadership teams are integral

Continuous improvement efforts begin at the leadership team level. Our teams do a bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to examining the data, making instructional decisions, implementing and then monitoring our plans.

Our works starts with the comprehensive needs assessment (CNA) where different types of collected data are recorded and analyzed. Reflection on the review helps to identify the next steps and provides us with more opportunities for collecting data. The team then does the hard work of determining how to address the root cause and make necessary changes.

All our work gets brought back to the grade-level teams through the PLC process.

Lesson 2: Laser-like focus on instructional practices

No longer is a leadership team responsible for planning potlucks! Practice profiles are the drivers that get all of our staff on the same page with our instructional strategies to address the gaps revealed in our CNA. Our leadership team carries the load of researching instructional practices, developing a practice profile, determining how the staff will be trained in the new practice and then analyzing the data collected during walkthroughs.

Each meeting basically has the same agenda that focuses on identifying celebrations, reviewing our progress on our practice profiles, reviewing data, updating the team on PLC work being done in the grade-levels and determining what needs to be communicated back to our stakeholders. This consistency has allowed us to focus on the important work that needs to be accomplished to make changes.

Lesson 3: A fidelity check is a learning walk

As our staff rolled out our practice profiles, we wanted to ensure that teachers were adopting these instructional practices to fidelity. As a building principal, I felt it was important to include the Leadership team on these walkthroughs. We created a Google form for each profile and began scheduling our fidelity checks.

The most powerful learning that happened was way more than the data; it was the self-reflection of the teachers doing the fidelity checks as a team. Through reflection, teachers would make great connections and further their understanding of the instructional practice. Teachers on the leadership team now take along grade-level partners to conduct checks using the shared tool. The learning has spread out, impacting more teachers.

Lesson 4: Accountability

Who do we want our teachers to be accountable to? Obviously, we want our teachers to follow through on embedding the instructional practices in order to make improvements for the benefit of our students. Leadership has taken on the role of holding teachers accountable to each other through the PLC process. Each Leadership team member is part of a unique PLC and is responsible for documenting at each PLC meeting and sharing progress at Leadership. I used to think the building principal needed to rotate between all PLCs to ensure that the work was being done. This was almost impossible!  However, by allowing leadership to take the lead, my time is better served with my MTSS Data Review Team that meets with each PLC every 6 weeks.

“To lead people, walk beside them. As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence … When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’” – Lao Tsu, Chinese philosopher

by Jen Larva (@jlarva4371), proud principal of Lowell Elementary School in the Duluth Public School District

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Don’t Let Your Dreams be Dreams

by Tom Benson, Pilot Knob STEM Magnet School,


Dear Friends,

As you may know, I am out sailing for a year on Faith Afloat, my Catalina 350 sailboat, with my two boys Luke, 12, and Liam, 16. But many of you don’t know the back (and back, back)-story to this #PrincipalSailingEdventures. So, let me take you back a few years and show you how my dream was ignited and how it became reality more than 40 years later.

Back Story …

My dream to sail began when I was a teen. I read the book “The Dove” and saw the 1974 biographical film based on the story of Robin Lee Graham, a 16-year-old who sailed around the world alone from 1965 – 1968. The book and articles in National Geographic hooked me and created my dream to become a sailor. This trip is the achievement of that dream.

For those who want to know more, here is the Back, Back Story …

In 1974 was a 6th grader living in St. Cloud, MN. St Cloud is about as far away from an ocean as you can get (and surely not a tropical location). I happened to watch a National Geographic special about Robin Lee Graham, a 16-year-old boy who sailed out of Marina Del Rey, CA in 1965 to become the youngest person to sail around the world. The documentary made such a powerful impression upon me that I clearly remember sitting on the red indoor/outdoor carpeting in our basement (a memory which singles me out as a baby boomer) and watching it. I was spellbound, and from that moment on I was fascinated with sailing and determined to become a sailor, adventurer, and explorer.

We all need role models and supporters; fortunately, I had both. My parents supported my dream and my mom bought us a small Snark sailboat. A Snark sailboat is nothing more than a large piece of Styrofoam with a sail – but you need to start someplace. After many capsizes and rescues I got a little better at sailing the Snark. I also had teachers who shared their passions. I clearly remember Mr. Bruce Moberg, my high school social studies teacher, and the times we spent sitting in his garage looking at his sailboat as he told stories of sailing in The Lake of the Woods. Mr. Moberg fanned the flames of my sailing dreams while showing me the powerful impact a teacher can have on a student’s life. If there are any teachers reading this, please tell your stories and share your passions; “Telling story,” as Hawaiians call it, is a compelling tool.

The next big step towards my dream came while living and going to university in Portland, Oregon, a location I chose specifically because of its proximity to the ocean. Portland’s nickname is “Bridge City” due to the rivers which crisscross the city. Whenever I could, I sailed 27’ – 30’ boats on Portland’s rivers and through the Columbia Gorge. One summer, my friends and I chartered a 40’ Islander sailboat in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. We sailed to Canada and explored the islands that we came across along the way. The excitement of sailing to a foreign country, landing on an island, exploring, looking for shells and driftwood, and learning about the local history was fascinating to me. Seeing Killer Whales and all the ocean life exceeded my expectations beyond belief, and confirmed my dream. I knew for certain that sailing was something I wanted to do more of.

A post shared by Tom Benson (@tombenson777) on

In 1986 I left Portland and moved to Los Angeles, California, to begin my career as an inner-city teacher in South Central LA. At first people laughed and doubted that a teacher making $24,000 a year could have a sailboat. But dreams are powerful things to mess with and I spent all my free time searching through marinas in Southern California for a boat I could afford. Finally I found a 27-foot, 1968 Santana/Schock sailboat sitting under a layer of dust and grime at a working marina in San Pedro, California. I called the owner and learned that the boat had been the pride and joy of a man who tragically died before completely finishing the boat. I purchased the boat from his widow, who was pleased to know that I would love, cherish, and restore the boat, completing her husband’s work while creating my own dreamboat. When finished, I named the boat The Roy after my grandfather who loved the water. I learned through trial and error – mostly errors! — how to sail The Roy. Again, something for teachers and students: I raced the boat and at first I was such a terrible sailor that all the boats finished hours before we finished. But, we practiced and learned more, and finally won the race series (Growth – Mindset and Effort = Achievement).

As a teacher I wanted to share my love of sailing with my students (biking too) and encourage them to dream, “paying it forward” like Mr. Moberg had done with me, so I taught some of my 3rd grade students to sail. These were African – American and Hispanic students who lived only eight miles from the ocean, but rarely, if ever, made it to the beach, let alone on a sailboat. It was gratifying to teach them, although I began to question my teaching skills when, after sailing for an hour or so, one of the students asked where the motor was and why didn’t he hear it. So much for my teaching skills, though I like to believe that they have developed considerably since then.

I eventually left behind the ocean, but never left behind my dream. Fast forward to 2003; while working for the Minnesota Department of Education I met Jay Haugen, a fellow co-worker. We bought a boat together, which allowed me to sail once again. I shared my dream of sailing full-time with Jay, and we hatched a plan to take a sabbatical (I like to call it a seabbatical) to go and sail. Jay, his wife Janet, and their children Kaetchen, 15, and Kimberly, 10, headed out for a year of sailing “The Great Loop,” down the river system to Florida and up the East Coast. They had a great trip that was life changing. I wanted to follow in Jay’s wake, but was unsuccessful at getting a sabbatical to support the trip. As each year passed Jay encouraged me to get going despite the lack of funding, but the time was never quite right. I would often sit over a craft beer with Jay and have him recount his adventure; now I am looking to tell the story to others who will also take the trip or pursue their dreams.

Fast forward again to 2017, when a combination of events vividly illustrated how life and circumstances can change in an instant; I realized that time could run out before I achieved my dream. Around the time of that epiphany, I saw “Don’t Let Your Dreams Be Dreams” written in the bathroom of The Thirsty Pagan Brew Pub. This became my personal motto; I decided to cast off the bow lines and take a chance that it would all work out. Thanks to the support of my wife Sandy, daughter Nicole, Mom and Dad, along with Mr. Visa, Mrs. Chase, and their son Discover, we headed out on Faith Afloat on August 1, 2017 for a year of sailing. I call this year long journey my “Principal Sailing Edventure,” because it combines the fulfillment of my own dreams with the desire to share my experiences with students, just as Mr. Moberg did with me, to encourage others to dream and follow those dreams — regardless of how long it takes.

As I finish writing this I am at anchor just outside of St. Augustine, Florida with my two boys Liam 16, and Luke 13, living our dream. We are continuing our adventure down the Intracoastal Waterway and heading to the Caribbean. We are excited that you are following our sailing adventure. You may follow us via FaceBook and Instagram at TomBenson777. If you would like to reach me in person, please feel free to call at 651-262-9197, or email at

Tom Benson

S/V Faith Afloat

Pilot Knob STEM Magnet School Principal



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Power of the Dog


by Taber Akin (@taberakin) and Bret Domstrand (@bretdom)

Junkyard Dog, Snoop Dogg, School Resource Dog

Which of these sounds like something you want to share at your school? I hope the answer was easy: School Resource Dog (SRD). Since 2014, the Lakeville Area Schools have been hiring School Resource Dogs dogs to play an important role working with students. Although the work of each School Resource dog looks slightly different at each site, the results are pretty clear – students enjoy working with this unique instructional tool.  

In Lakeville, we have five School Resources dogs. All of our dogs were trained for 2+ years as service dogs by Pawsitive Perspective Assistance Dogs (aka PawPADs). They were dual trained to be mobility assistance and diabetic alert service dogs.  For different reasons, each dog was seeking a career change and were placed with ISD 194.  Similar to police K-9 officers, all of Lakeville’s School Resource Dogs are owned by the school district, assigned to a primary handler who feeds and cares for them as well as lives in that person’s home. Three of our dogs have a principal as a primary handler, one is with a school psychologist and another lives and is cared for by one of our an elementary school counselors.

Hero Reading

We see each dog as an instructional tool for our students.  The work of the dog is differentiated based on the needs of the students or the school.  Of course, unlike most instructional tools (such as iPads or pencils), these tools have tails, heartbeats, and wonderful personalities. With five full-time School Resource Dogs there are lots of stories to tell about their work and the connections they make.  The connections our dogs make range from being the school tour guide/ambassador for new students and families, supporting specific students in the academic and social venues or simply help change a bad day into a great day by interacting with a student.

Starting the School Resource Dog program in ISD 194 wasn’t incredibly difficult, but we did encounter some resistance.  That small amount of resistance and anxiety about a dog in a school on a regular basis would be nothing compared to what would happen if we tried to end the program and remove the dogs from Lakeville schools. How many students have easy access to the dog depends on the setting that the dog is placed in.  In both of our cases, all students have access to Seamus and Hero.  Some students have more consistent access to the dog leading to integrated regular connections between the dog and students.  Other students may occasionally seek out a dog for a little canine love. The power of the dog is amazing as some students will work tirelessly towards meeting all of their daily goals in exchange for spending time with Hero, others find time for a quick visit with Seamus to help them return to class and re-engage in their work, and it doesn’t stop there as adults also have strong positive connections with their School Resource Dog.  

Adding a School Resource Dog is a commitment. Having a team of handlers makes the difference. Providing training for teachers, parents and staff members is the critical component to maximizing the use of your dog. The possibilities are endless!

If you want to know more about how we brought School Resource Dogs to Lakeville or have questions in general, please do not hesitate to reach out to either of us.

Taber Akin

Bret Domstrand

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Trust Your Wisdom (and Play to Your Strengths)

by Jake Donze, Plainview-Elgin-Millville PreK-3 Principal, @PrincipalDonze

BasketballLast week I attended ‘open gym’ at one of our school buildings to play some basketball. I expected to find a bunch of middle-aged people like myself who wanted an evening of gentle exercise, lots of rest time, and mostly self-deprecating camaraderie. What I found was a gym full of twenty-somethings (many of whom were former students) all looking like they turned down a night with the NBA to show off for the locals.

I halfway decided I wasn’t going to stay, but my friend convinced me otherwise and told me “our wisdom will be our advantage.” Wisdom. I knew it was just a code word for Old, and on this night I wasn’t sure how that would help us. But hey — I was wearing my “vintage” 90s basketball shoes, so I might as well get some use out of them. It’d been a long time since the glory days.

Speaking of the glory days, mine were less than glorious, athletically speaking. I can spin a basketball on my finger exceedingly well, which is not actually a move that anyone on the court uses, unless you’re a Harlem Globetrotter. This “talent” was the direct result of spending a lot of time on the bench, needing an activity to keep me occupied. (It has proven to be very impressive for the elementary kids — an unexpected perk for all that lack of playing time!)

After the ritual of shooting free throws to decide teams — Who will be shirts and who will be skins (Why does this still exist?) — I took to the court, hoping my overly-wise self wouldn’t get maimed in the midst of these behemoths.

This is when things got surprising.

No — I didn’t play out of my mind and shoot the lights out. No — I didn’t become the de facto leader of this athletically-inclined dunk squad, though that would make for a cooler story.

What was surprising was that I wasn’t entirely embarrassed or even particularly outmatched. I was certainly out-sized and out-youthed… but I soon discovered that thinking a little quicker might be the key.

So I began anticipating runs to get a little distance on the surrounding cheetahs. I kept running, all the time — even slowly — and it turned out that most of these guys didn’t like being in constant motion to keep up with me.

Granted when I got the ball, even a lay-up was no guarantee… but I did get the ball. I even got some points. And some assists. And some weird cracking noise in my knee whenever I turned too fast.

So why this extended sports anecdote in a principals’ blog? Because our experience as principals is not far off from this evening on the court. Our job as principal is not to be better at everything than everyone else. We’re not — so be okay with it. You spend your day surrounded by experts doing what they do best. It is our job to anticipate, think fast and stay ahead of the game. It’s our job to go to the people who can get the job done right, and then let them enjoy the glory that comes with it. And yes, we’re also always running — certainly metaphorically and sometimes literally — and that’s all part of the game. You might not end up with a trophy, but we all know trophies aren’t why we chose this profession.

So I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your practice during this busiest time of year. Think about what you’re good at and where you shine. Consider what a great team you have at your school. Revel in your wiseness, even if for a moment.

The best part is, even after a little reflection, you’ll still be able to walk the next day without being sore.

Have a safe and relaxing winter break, everyone.

Jake Donze

Plainview-Elgin-Millville PreK-3 Principal



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What MESPA is Thankful For This Year

by Jon Millerhagen, MESPA Executive Director


Dear MESPA members,

Happy Thanksgiving! At this time of year, I like to reflect on what I’m thankful for here at MESPA.

The biggest thing I’m thankful for, of course, is all of you. Our members make MESPA what it is: a relevant, thriving, member-directed organization. So far this year we have 941 total members – that’s a staggering number of you from around the state who are committed to developing your skills and improving the educational experiences of the students you serve.

MESPA has always been about making sure members are getting what they need. That’s why we’ve made it an organizational goal to have as many of our professional development opportunities as possible be designed and led by MESPA members. No one knows what principals need like other principals who have been there before. So I’d like to send my thanks to our incredible professional development design teams who put together sessions including our Early Career Principals Workshop and 21st Century School Office, and helped design our PreK-3 series.

In 2016-17, nearly 1,600 principals and school teams took advantage of our 50 days of professional development. That number is already at 551 this year and on a similar pace as last year. In 2016-17, our sessions combined for 271 CEUs – an immense number that speaks to the variety of different options Minnesota principals have to expand their horizons and find the professional development opportunity that meets their particular needs or challenges.

I am thankful for MESPA’s flexibility and ability to explore new ideas and always stay on the forefront of providing our members with what they need. I am thankful that so many of our members are able to give themselves permission to leave their buildings for professional development – so they can come back reinvigorated and recharged with new ideas and new tools to accomplish them.

As one MESPA member said, “I appreciate this opportunity to learn more about how to serve the students, staff and families in my community!”

That’s what it’s all about. Giving you the tools and knowledge you need to succeed for your staff, your building, and, most importantly, your students. I’m thankful for all that you do for them, for all the hard work and long hours that can go unnoticed. We see you, and we applaud you. And we want to make sure that MESPA continues to champion the idea of principals helping principals. Because no one can do it better than you.

Wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy Thanksgiving,


Jon Millerhagen

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12 Things School Leaders Should Stop Doing Today

by Institute 2018 Keynote Speaker Jimmy Casas

This guest blog was originally posted at Reposted with permission from the author.

Stop Casas

A couple of weeks ago I was part of a group discussion where a building principal shared that he had been called to the superintendent’s office. You could tell by the tone in his voice that he was a bit nervous about why his superintendent had requested the meeting. He shared that it wasn’t the first time he had been called in to have “a talk.” This got me to thinking how often we behave in similar ways (both intentionally and unintentionally) as building and district leaders when it comes to managing conversations and our decisions, and the negative impact this can have on the overall culture of any organization. Please know I share these with you because at one time or another I have acted in the manner I describe below, even though my intentions were to want to be better, not only for members of my school community, but for my growth as a leader. As I grew and matured into the role of a building principal, I did my best to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them, knowing full well I would fall short at times.

As a building or district leader, here are a few things you might want to consider stopping today. Let’s begin by addressing the scenario above:


  1. Calling staff to your office without offering some explanation of what the meeting will entail. This causes a person’s anxiety level to increase because from the moment they receive notice, their mind will begin to swirl with possibilities of what the meeting is about. And in most cases, people will think the worse.
  2. Giving excuses when you fail to follow up. Understand that when you don’t get back to people in a timely fashion it gives others the impression that you are not organized or in some instances, that their needs are not important to you.
  3. Holding faculty meetings for the sake of just holding them. Unless you have a specific purpose to bring your team together, considering passing on the meeting and showing them how much you value their time by giving it back to them.
  4. Talking negatively about your staff to other staff. Speaking negatively about others actually says more about you than it does about the people you are singling out. Besides, you are kidding yourself if you think that won’t get back to those who you are gossiping about.
  5. Allowing the adults in your school to bully other staff. This is one of the biggest issues facing school improvement initiatives today. We cannot cultivate a high-performing learning environment in our schools if staff is intimidating their own colleagues through their words or actions. This type of negative behavior should never be tolerated and must be addressed.
  6. Using the word “they” when” referring to other members of your school community, especially when things are not going well or we are not happy about an outcome. Focus more on “we” when celebrating something positive or trying to work through any significant challenge.
  7. Making assumptions. It is never a good idea to go into a conversation or a situation believing you know more than you actually do. This has all the potential to create trust issues so avoid doing so at all costs. If you want to know what the issue or dilemma is really about, simply ask before you respond.
  8. Getting frustrated when you think people are not following your directions to your level of expectation. Begin by asking yourself if you provided enough clarity. In other words, were your directions as clear as they could have been? If not, own it, regroup, and try again, this time focusing on more specifics of what you want.
  9. Expecting everything to go as planned. Working in schools can sometimes be unpredictable because the variables (students and teachers) are always changing. How you conduct yourself in these moments will either inspire of deflate your team.
  10. Responding to harsh and not so complimentary emails you receive with an email of your own. Recognize that these moments of frustration, blame or accusatory language expressed in written form by others who are not happy is often more about other external factors and has nothing to do with you. So don’t assume or make it about you (see #7). Pick up the phone and call the person and ask, “What can I do to ease your frustration or disappointment?”
  11. Asking your staff for feedback and then not doing anything with the feedback. If your staff gets frustrated because they don’t think you did anything with the feedback and you think you did, then reflect on how you could have communicated more effectively so they would know the progress you were making with the information they provided you. By taking action and communicating your progress, you will get people to be more invested and honest in their feedback because they believe that something positive is going to come from it.
  12. Trying to manage and lead the school all by yourself. You cannot sustain this pace and do it effectively for any length of time. If you try, it will come at a heavy price – your health or your family. Both options are a loser deal for you.

There isn’t a day that goes by in the work of a school or district leader that is free of challenges. The never-ending stream of problems and challenges that flows across our paths during the course of an entire school year can leave even the most positive and passionate leaders feeling exhausted and depleted. It is easy to get sucked into the daily trivialities that drain our energy and overwhelm us with a laundry list of things to do. So what can you do to provide yourself with a little relief in order to stay fresh and energized in hopes of offering some of that positive energy to others?

Maybe we are thinking about it all wrong. Rather than ask what can we start doing, perhaps a better question would be to ask, “What should I stop doing?”

What thoughts do you have? I would love to hear about them.

Jimmy Casas has more than 22 years of experience as an educational leader, has won several awards (including 2012 Iowa Principal of the Year, 2015 Bammy Award for National Secondary Principal of the Year), and currently serves as the Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education. Register today to hear his keynote at MESPA Institute 2018. 

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