BY GABE LICHT
BY PAUL DOWNER
Delano Public Schools
DELANO, MN During Darren Schuler’s tenure as principal at Delano Elementary School, the school has collected a number of national and statewide awards.
Now, Schuler is the one up for an award, as he has been named one of three statewide finalists for the Minnesota 2018 National Distinguished Principal honor.
“It’s fun to be recognized. There are some amazing folks out there doing some amazing things,” Schuler said. “It’s neat to be part of the process any way it goes.”
Schuler was nominated for the honor by former Delano assistant principals Corey Lahr, now the principal at St. Michael Elementary, and John McDonald, now the principal of Albertville Primary, St. Michael-Albertville Schools.
“Throughout his tenure at Delano Elementary, Mr. Schuler has always had a vision for excellence,” Lahr and McDonald wrote in their nomination. “His goal is to make all staff better at their jobs by promoting best practices. Mr. Schuler not only strives to help the staff at Delano Elementary grow, but he is constantly working on making himself better, too.”
It meant a lot to Schuler to be nominated by Lahr and McDonald.
“That was really meaningful,” Schuler said. “It’s neat to see those guys leave here and be really successful in their new positions. I think one of my jobs as a principal, and when you’re working with assistant principals, is to put them in position to be successful.”
Under Schuler’s leadership, DES has been successful, having been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, a Senator’s School of Excellence, an Active Schools Award winner, a Minnesota Academic Excellence Foundation School Spotlight Award winner, and has been credentialed by the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association as a Minnesota School of Excellence.
Superintendent Matt Schoen has seen those recognitions and is not surprised to see Schuler being recognized.
“On behalf of the school district, we’re extremely proud of Mr. Schuler’s accomplishments professionally as the principal of our elementary school,” Schoen said. “Over the past 11 years, working with Mr. Schuler, both as a fellow principal and as superintendent, I’ve been very impressed with his ability to be the instructional leader in our elementary school. Mr. Schuler has built positive and effective relationships over the past several years that have created an optimal teaching and learning environment for all students and staff.”
After his nomination, Schuler went through an additional application process in order to advance. While he found the practice of listing his accomplishments uncomfortable at first, he said the process ultimately served as a quality way to reflect on some of the things he has done over an 18-year principal career, including the past 13 years in Delano. Previous principal stints included three years in Lanesboro and two in Milaca. He also taught second grade in Watertown for seven years before embarking on his career as an administrator.
Building a strong staff
Schuler said his biggest focus as a leader has been to build a school culture that breeds success. At the front end of that effort is a relatively extensive hiring process that ensures a skilled teaching staff.
“I feel like we get really good, high-quality people that fit the Delano mold. I think we’re really proud of the people we bring here to teach,” Schuler said, adding that a strong work ethic, team spirit, and a focus on doing what’s best for students are among the traits of staff members who are hired.
Bringing in top-notch staff members is important, he said, and particularly so in a community like Delano where parents get involved in the schools that drew many of them to the area in the first place.
“We have some really invested parents in Delano that come here for the schools,” Schuler said. “I think our staff does a really nice job of meeting those parent expectations . . . We have a wonderful staff here that works hard and advocates for kids in the classrooms. That makes my job a lot easier.”
Among the highlights of Schuler’s work in Delano is the formation of the Student Success Team, which brings together a mix of classroom and special education teachers, along with administrators, to compare notes on students who are struggling academically, behaviorally, or otherwise. The group then considers that information and recommends the proper intervention.
“Our goal is to prevent kids from having to go down the special education route,” Schuler said. “If our building experts can give them the necessary tools, these kids can be successful in a regular ed. classroom.”
Additionally, Schuler and his staff work to integrate special education students into regular education wherever possible, an issue Schuler said is particularly important to him as the father of a child with special needs.
“I take a lot of pride in that because I live it every day as a dad,” Schuler said. “Seeing the opportunities my own son has had at Delano schools, I want other kids to have that same experience if they do have learning disabilities or they do have a disability that prevents them from doing everything another child would do. We want to be as inclusive as possible.”
Schuler said he makes a point of trying to connect with as many students as possible on a daily basis, greeting them in the hallways and learning as many names as possible.
“That hopefully creates an environment where they know the principal cares,” he said.
Schuler thanked Schoen and former Superintendent John Sweet, as well as school board members, for their support during his time in Delano. He believes those policymakers have created an environment that allows autonomy for building principals while setting high standards, and said that balanced approach can’t be taken for granted.
“I feel very fortunate to have good leadership,” he said.
Schuler also thanked his wife and family for their understanding of the many obligations the principal’s position entails.
Schuler and the other finalists, Lisa Pikop (principal of Garfield Elementary, Miltona Science Magnet School, and Carlos Elementary in Alexandria Public Schools) and Curtis Slater (principal of Wyoming Elementary in the Forest Lake School District) will gather for in-person interviews with a selection committee that includes MESPA’s executive board members and a former award winner.
Candidates will be given some questions ahead of time, and will have to answer others on the spot. After interviews, the selection committee will choose its 2018 Minnesota National Distinguished Principal. That individual, along with 49 counterparts representing their own states, will earn a trip to Washington, D.C. for an awards ceremony.
The National Distinguished Principals program was established in 1984 to recognize elementary- and middle- level principals who set high standards for instruction, student achievement, character, and climate for the students, families, and staffs in their learning communities.
“So much of the work that elementary principals do goes unnoticed,” said Jon Millerhagen, MESPA executive director. “The National Distinguished Principal program provides us with an opportunity to recognize the huge impact that principals make on the lives and learning of every student who passes through their doors. The three finalists identified for this honor are a passionate group of people who are making a difference every day in their school communities.”