Hacker looks back at more than 30 years in education

Most school superintendents wear multiple hats on the job, and Loren Hacker is no exception.

For more than 30 years, Hacker has been a juggler, a politician, a teacher, a mediator, a psychic, an accountant and a role model as he tended to the various needs and demands of students, teachers, parents, administrators, school board members and the community involved as well. With his June 30 retirement drawing near, Hacker reflected on his educational experiences the past three decades.

“Being a superintendent is a the most-challenging job I’ve ever done,” Hacker said. “You always have to remember that any decision has to be about the future of the students. It’s less about the kids right now and more about the future of the kids down the road. What’s happening now is only because of what we’ve done in the past. We have to keep moving forward, trying to set things up for success.”

While frustrating and challenging, Hacker said he’s truly enjoyed his experiences, serving as the Canby School superintendent for nearly 11 years and as a key educator in the Dawson-Boyd district for 22 years. Hacker was a teacher and coach at Dawson-Boyd for 15 years and served as principal there for seven years.

“I’ll miss it all,” he said. “I’ve never been unhappy doing what I’m doing. There has never been a boring day. I learn something new every day. How many jobs can you say that about?”

The biggest challenge, Hacker said, was declining enrollment and declining revenue.

“It’s difficult to keep the budget in line with fewer kids and fewer dollars,” he said. “Since we’re in a people organization, that results in having to visit with people about not having a job, which is not a fun task. It’s really tough.”

Years ago, a colleague jokingly told Hacker that “nothing makes an administrator happier than a pregnant woman,” but it was truthful.

“You don’t have job security if you don’t maintain the population,” Hacker said. “Our job is to try and do the best for everyone, to balance everything. But it’s always a challenge.”

Through the years, Hacker said he’s met and worked with a lot of great people. He’ll carry those memories with him when he retires.

“The biggest highlight as an educator is working with the people I have, not only my staff and board here at Canby, but the people in Dawson-Boyd, too,” Hacker said. “It has also been a highlight to work with the other superintendents involved in the flexible learning year (FLY). They’re outstanding people who are very committed.”

Since being approved in 2010 by the Minnesota Department of Education, the 25-district FLY consortium has collaborated on a number of educational opportunities.

“Some of those FLY meetings have produced the most serious discussions I’ve ever had in my career,” Hacker said. “There’s a serious sense of why we are doing this. We talk about and do things at this high level, and we want to engage parents in that way, too. We want everyone to be talking about how we can improve education.”

Hacker pointed out that like most superintendents, he is most concerned with increasing student learning, so that’s the conversation that takes place the most.

“We don’t vary very much in our values and beliefs, so it’s easy to get on the same page,” Hacker said. “Not everybody has turf issues, but we know the size of our lawn.”

Despite the school enrollment differences, the 25 FLY districts work well together, Hacker said. He’s especially appreciative of the superintendents from the largest school districts, such as Klint Willert (Marshall), John Landgaard (Worthington), Gary Fisher (Luverne) and Rick Ellingworth (Redwood Valley).

“I can’t commend people like Klint, John, Gary and Rick enough for working together with the smaller schools to make things happen,” Hacker said. “They’re visionary leaders of education that we can be proud of. There are a lot of other people, too, but they’re the glue that keeps us together. We are better together. “

While nearing the end of the third year of the three-year FLY agreement, 23 of the 25 districts in the FLY consortium will continue with a new three-year FLY agreement. Along with Tracy Area Public Schools, Canby opted out, though Hacker hopes that staff development and collaboration opportunities will still be made available to the district.

“Collaboration is how we work together, and I hope it’s not done yet,” he said.

Looking to the future, Hacker suspects that over-testing could be the single most negative factor facing districts. Protecting educational minutes in the classroom then would be one of his biggest goals for the future.

“I think the one thing we should never get very far from is the fact that the most important person in the classroom is the teacher,” he said. “Teachers drive education, so we need to protect that classroom time and teachers.”

Testing, Hacker said, can be counter-productive if not kept in check.

“We need testing,” he said. “It’s just over-emphasized.”

People also differ when it comes to testing philosophy, Hacker said, noting that teachers in the classroom should expect about 80 percent of their students to be successful, though educators would love to have everyone be successful. The state, however, would demand that the test be tougher if 80 percent of students were successful, he said.

“The state only wants half to pass,” Hacker said. “I’m really proud of the education we give our children in Minnesota. We’re trying really hard. But in a lot of ways, we’re our own worst enemy. We beat ourselves up. We think we’re so good that we have to have tougher tests, so there are different philosophies about it.”

Hacker also believes that testing should be a tool, that people need to look at the big picture.

“It’s morphing and changing, the whole accountability thing,” he said. “It’s hard to argue whether or not you’re doing your job and meeting each child’s needs by giving them one 40-point test. How can you measure one child’s self-worth in one test? You have to keep it in perspective. It should be one tool.”

While the high stakes testing every spring is state-mandated, educators are left waiting too long for the test results, Hacker said. Like countless other administrators, he believes that districts should have those results quickly, so schools can make positive changes.

“We’ve been wanting to fix that for a long time,” he said. “They want us to be accountable in a system that’s broken. And we keep telling our politicians that.”

One final tidbit that Hacker added pertained to technology.

“It’s essential,” Hacker said. “But the one thing you have to understand is that there is no correlation between improved test scores and technology. Technology is about preparing our children to operate in this world. That’s important, but the two don’t necessarily go together.”

As for his own future, Hacker is somewhat uncertain but optimistic.

“They tend to recycle old superintendents,” Hacker said. “So you never know. I’ll just see where the good Lord leads me. He’ll find a good path for me, or I’ll just go fishing.”