Superintendent Dr. Hanke Reflects on 10 Years in Dublin and the Challenges of Rapid Growth
DUBLIN, CA–OneDublin.org recently sat down with retiring Dublin Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hanke to reflect on his ten years as DUSD Superintendent, and share learnings from the challenges posed by rapid growth.
OneDublin.org: Let’s start ten years ago – what attracted you to join the Dublin Unified School District?
Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hanke: “Ten year ago I was an assistant superintendent in a district a bit larger than we are today, and much like Pleasanton. It was fast-paced, high performing and similar to what we’ve achieved now. I was looking for a superintendency and had thrown a wide net across the state to look for opportunities, and I felt Dublin was one of those great opportunities. Dublin was a growing school district that had a good reputation with lots of opportunity to make changes and bring improvements to the community, building on my background.
OneDublin.org: What are you most proud of, looking back over your time in Dublin?
Dr. Hanke: “The last ten years for me have been absolutely amazing. I’ve enjoyed many aspects of my career but nothing has been like Dublin. Looking back we’ve really made progress on raising the bar, putting more focus on academics and higher level of achievement for students, bringing in really good people to compete with surrounding school districts and working together to raise the profile of the district inside and outside of Dublin. I believe we’ve been on a steady path of improvement for a long time, and that will continue.
“The progress hasn’t just been in the new schools we’ve built, it’s been about improving the program for all students. I credit our focus on student learning as a key factor in the improvements we’ve seen. Not individual schools, but the entire system working together on a common objective, embracing and holding on to key initiatives including Professional Learning Communities.
“Dublin also provides a wonderful environment for learning. The support from the community has been phenomenal, from volunteers in our schools to support for bonds and parcel taxes. There is something that is very special about this community and the level of support for our schools. You can’t get to the level of success we’ve had without the combination of strong programs and support from the community. The leadership we have from the school board, to classrooms, to parent leaders and volunteers has been very positive.
“We are unique in some ways in that we have an excellent relationship with the city. We’re working very hard to partner with the city and promote the concept that solid communities have solid schools, and that it is to everyone’s advantage to have an excellent school system. We’ve worked with the city on ground lease agreements, joint use agreements and we’re about to enter into a Center for Performing Arts and Education agreement; all of these have produced a better system for kids.
“We are, obviously, not without challenges, but I cannot have been more fortunate to have the opportunity to work in Dublin.”
OneDublin.org: What has been the most unexpected learning from your ten years in Dublin?
Dr. Hanke: “My experience in Dublin demonstrated that if you put together a strategic plan, and you are true to that plan, using it like a GPS to measure, adjust and align in real-time that it works. I learned about the importance of having a consistent message shared by a strong leadership team, that establishes over time how things are done in this district. For example, we have become a Professional Learning Community and with that comes expectations for those that join the district. All successful organizations are built on core beliefs.”
OneDublin.org: The perception of Dublin schools, in particular Dublin High School, has changed dramatically over the past ten years. Compare what you heard from parents and your peers ten years ago vs. today.
Dr. Hanke: “When I first came here there was conversation that all the schools were great through 8th grade until you got to the high school level, and then it was best to transfer out. That was the hill we were climbing. We focused, brought in programs, better communicated the success of the school and over ten years have seen consistent growth in test scores and in the scope of programs offered. We put more focus on college readiness indicators like SAT and ACT scores, all of which have increased. A terrific example of expanding our program offerings was establishing the Dublin High School Engineering and Design Academy, which now has over 150 students. We also have a Biomedical Academy with over 200 kids, a Culinary Arts program, a Video Production program, and more. And, of course, the renewed and new buildings on the Dublin High campus including the Center for Performing Arts and Education.
“We went from people seeking inter-district transfers out of the district to people seeking inter-district transfers into the district. I compare Dublin High School programs to any high school in the Tri-Valley area – period – with an environment that is stronger. I was recently on the Dublin High campus for a basketball game and the campus was alive – there were One Acts in the Center for Performing Arts and a soccer game at Gael Stadium. The community was united supporting students. And in the Athletic Center students filled the stands with Gael Gauntlet t-shirts, standing and cheering, enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime experience of high school spirit. I also saw the richness and strength of the diversity in our community.”
OneDublin.org: What have you learned about the enrollment forecasting issues at Dublin High School that could help your peers in other districts avoid similar issues?
Dr. Hanke: “That’s an important question that I’ve thought about a lot. Looking back in time we probably weren’t looking far enough down the road. The needs years ago, for a community with so many young families, were focused at the elementary school level. That’s why we built Fallon as a K-8 first because we knew it would grow into a middle school. Then Green, Kolb and now Amador. And every one of those schools was built as quickly as we could to address the need.
“The high school issue has been a tough one. I don’t know what the conversation was in 1998 when it was decided a second high school site wasn’t needed, but what I can tell you is that when I came here ten years ago there was significant capacity at the high school, so the focus was on the elementary and then the middle school side. Were we a little slow on the high school side? Probably.
“I learned that dealing with developers is not easy and that getting an outside consultant early on is a good thing. I have a consultant right now and I probably should have brought him in a little bit sooner. I made assumptions about negotiating with developers and I probably could have done a better job with someone from the outside, who deals with these problems every day, advising me. I didn’t know that. My focus was on programming across the district and growth at the elementary and middle school levels. I learned from that experience.
“I did change the district’s demographer for the one error that he made which was the forecast about the high school. We did look at prior forecasts that were made year-over-year and they were accurate every year, and I made the assumption that given the accuracy of past forecasts, these forecasts must be right. We have a new demographer working hard on updating our forecasts, and reviewing five years of SFNAs [School Facilities Needs Analysis], and I believe that analysis will demonstrate we did do things correctly, that the funding we received based on SB50 was correct.
“I believe there is a systemic issue in school funding, especially in the Bay Area where construction costs and land are shockingly high. Imagine that you had 40% of your home budget taken away – what would you do? You’d have to make cuts somewhere, you wouldn’t be able to do what you would have done had the funding been there. We are a public school system and don’t have the choice to make cutbacks – the kids are coming and we need to support them.
“I believe that we’ll get through this if the community will help us get there. I look at the problems that we’ve solved together, such as raising the bar for student learning and instruction, and given the success we’ve had there I truly believe we can have similar success despite the growth challenges were are facing. We have to work together and solve the funding challenges, one way or another.
“We need the Jordan Ranch school, the Dublin Crossing school, we need a second high school and we need to hold on to Nielsen Elementary site just in case we need it ten years down the road.”
OneDublin.org: What advice do you have for whoever ends up being the next superintendent?
Dr. Hanke: “One – keep going. We’re on the right path. Two – make sure you are bringing people together. We have a changing community, a culturally diverse community that needs to be brought together. Three – continue to work towards the concept of a unified community. We are all in this together for our children and if we pool our resources and focus on problem solving we can work through the challenges that growth brings.”