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New superintendent ready for a good first year

Jane Berenz started the transition to her new job as soon as she was hired. Nathan Hansen/Town Pages

Jane Berenz has only been superintendent in District 196 since July, but she's hardly a stranger to the district. She was a student and a teacher here, a principal, director of elementary education and more before she was chosen earlier this year to replace the retiring John Currie.

With classes now under way for Berenz's first school year at the head of the district we sat down with her to see how things are going.

How did your transition go?

It was so smooth because of the relationships. Everything is based on relationships, so I know the people. They know me. And not everybody knows me to the level of what they soon will, but I sat on cabinet for 10 years. And then I was a principal and a teacher and a student and also living in the community, so I know the community. I know the culture, so I didn't have to get up to speed on that.

Were you surprised at all with the differences? Were there a lot of changes you didn't expect?

Until you live it, I don't think you can ever actually fully appreciate the varied issues that come into the superintendent's office. I knew that cognitively, but on a day to day basis you are dealing with very difficult issues.

Talk about some of the difficult issues. What kinds of things are you talking about?

Fiscally, understanding that everybody is facing tough times. So, not not only the funding from the legislature but knowing some of our families ... have lost jobs, are hurting and so we've got a group of kids that are facing some additional challenges that could be barriers to their learning.

Are you enjoying the job so far?

I am. John Currie and I chatted about this and he said it is the most exiting, fun job and there's moments that are, "Wow. This is really difficult. Nobody knows the solution to this." You go from most of the time thinking, "How fortunate am I to be in District 196, working with teachers and kids and families." ... And then every once in a while it's, "Oh!" (laughs)

Give me an example of one of those "Oh!" moments.

Well, it's the President's speech (delivered Tuesday to students). On the surface, who would think it would be an issue? It's our President wanting to speak to our children on the virtues of education. And so, going into that we're very appreciative that the President cares so much about education and everybody together would say this is a good thing to do kids. Stay in school, work hard, set goals. But it's turned into a political question. It's not turned into an educational one. So this office is at times so political.

You've been in District 196 pretty much your entire life. Do you ever get sick of it?

(Laughs) No. I did get out of here. I want everyone to know I left for five years. I was in Colorado Springs, a large district. I taught children with autism as well as second grade. You know, especially in District 196 we're almost a city. We're so large and so varied. And so we have a culture and the culture is everything's about kids. That's the same throughout. But all of our schools are very different and the issues that come in my door are very different from day to day so it would be very hard to become board in this position.

It's certainly a very different district than when you were a student here, and even from when you started working here it's changed a lot.

It is. I'm talking to every school. Every site, plus programs. I think it's around 30 different sites. I'm going to 37 different places and saying, Here I am. I want you to get to know me. Because it is a large district. I want to get to know you but I also want you to have a sense of what I'm thinking. And one of them is just how much we have changed, from a very rural district combining two districts together to make 196, morphing into much more of a suburban district, large and becoming more diverse, which is great.... But we need to then say, "How do we maintain our excellence as we change?"

How do you do that?

It's the conversations as you go around. You pay attention to your data. You pay attention to indicators that tell you how well you're doing. And then it's talking to people who are close to kids every day. It's talking to families and principals and together it's not one person saying, This is what you do. And knowing you need multiple solutions for such complex issues.

This is always an exciting time of year with kids coming back to school. Is it for you, too?

It is. I can't wait. One of the things I'm most excited about is I'm going to ride a kindergarten bus home the second day of school. And it's their first day and I'm going to take a Pinewood route and get a sense of kindergartners after they've had their first day. And to see a lot of parents, it's their first child coming home. So I'm excited to see that. It was great to start to go to sporting events. It's daunting to see the amount of people that this district affects and it doesn't stop at the end of the school day. I went to Rosemount High and what an idyllic place. The stadium sitting there, it is just gorgeous and the stands were full for Rosemount and they were full for Apple Valley. It was quite nice. Quite cordial. It was the whole sense of, this is community.

What are you looking forward to in this new school year?

Getting out and getting to know the community in my new role. That's why I'm going to every school. It's a large district, so I'm hoping to have people know who I am both as a person and as an administrator and to confirm and reconfirm that it is all about students. And it can get busy and your attention can get diverted from it.... You have to have a conscious energy toward that.

What do you do when you're not being superintendent? Or are you ever not being superintendent?

I am not complaining, but it is really 24 hours, seven days a week. I have four children so they're certainly a major factor in my life. But I've never had hobbies. It's always been education and my kids. I've always said, maybe I should work less. I've tried to go part time. And they said, "Mom, you're the only one who really realizes that this (part time) isn't what you should be doing."

Is it kind of fun to be there as a mom in that school district?

It is, but it also gives me a really good perspective of what it is to be a mom. For a very long time I've been able to go in as a mom and, being in the district office but in a curriculum role and not very well known. It's pretty hidden that cabinet position, as far as to the public.... So I know what it was like for parents to show up and how you get treated and, how do people respond to you at the attendance office area? Or I forgot to send in a note about a field trip. How do people react to that? So I have a really good sense, as a mom, what's it like to be in 196?

I'm guessing they respond a little bit differently to you.

Maybe now. I don't know. We'll see. And I don't expect them to, but it's different now that maybe my face will be more known. But up until now I've been very much a mom and able to experience it as other moms have.

Are you having a good time?

I am. I am surprised at how much I enjoy it.

Why?

Just because, knowing and watching other people in the role and I don't necessarily mean specifically to 196 you can see the toll it can take on superintendents and you can see in the newspaper at times and read difficult decisions and people weighing in and how very public it is. And so, that piece was very visible. What wasn't so visible, what you can't know is how great it is to be able to go across this district and interact with people and be invited to different events and be able to participate no matter what age. It's such a gamut of opportunity.

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