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The untraditional candidate: Kent Pekel prepares to take the helm of Rochester Public Schools

"He knows what good schools are like. And he knows what poorly performing school are like, and what they need to do differently," former RPS Superintendent Jerry Williams said. “That’s the kind of person that I want leading my school district."

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Rochester's new interim superintendent Kent Pekel June 18, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
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Kent Pekel has never been the superintendent of a school district before. Nor has he ever been a principal, although he does have some experience in the classroom as a teacher.

And yet, he’s poised to step into the role of interim superintendent of Rochester Public Schools . The organization is a behemoth of nearly 18,000 students and more than 2,000 staff members, requiring an annual budget of more than a quarter billion dollars. Overall, it ranks as the seventh largest school district in Minnesota, and the largest outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

In spite of lacking what some would call prerequisite positions for the job, Pekel received unanimous support from the Rochester School Board, outpacing a whole list of other candidates. The seven-member governing body approved a year-long contract with him and soon will begin a search for someone to fill the role permanently starting in 2022. But for the next year, Kent Pekel is the man leading the behemoth.

So, who is he anyway? What are the goals he hopes to accomplish? And most of all, what will he be able to bring to the role considering his lack of traditional experience for one of the highest-paid public service jobs in Rochester?

The Triangle: A Background of Education

Now 53, Pekel began his career with an interest in China. He started studying Chinese in high school while growing up in St. Paul, which he continued into his undergrad studies at Yale while also working on a degree in East Asian studies.

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He ended up teaching for about two years at a teachers’ college in the now-infamous city of Wuhan. It was at that stage in his life that his focus on education began to develop.

“I had this sense that the rise of China was going to be one of the great issues of our time,” Pekel said. “As I sat there, it became so apparent to me that what was happening in China was so centrally driven by education.

“I just frankly got concerned about the future of our own country and our schools.”

After his time in China, he returned to Minnesota and taught in Bloomington for several years. Soon after, though, he was accepted into a prestigious program as a White House Fellow. His time in that program led to a stint working with the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1990s. Through the course of a year, he wrote a research paper on the use of ethics within the agency.

Rleated:

He said that set him on the trajectory for his non-traditional career in education. He went on to positions in the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S Department of State.
He then returned to the more local level. He worked for St. Paul Public Schools as the director of research and development, coordinating closely with the district's superintendent Patricia Harvey. He then worked at the University of Minnesota.

Most recently, he has been the CEO of Search Institute. According to its mission statement, it “partners with organizations to conduct and apply research that promotes positive youth development and advances equity.”

He says he has worked on “three parts of a triangle that rarely connect in American schools.” Those three components are research, practice and policy.

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He went on to explain that his previous career stops have helped prepare him for the next phase as superintendent. It's because he's spent time in research, for example, that he's able to bring his data-driven emphasis on relationship building to the ground level where the students are.

“My career has really spent time in all three of those,” he said. “One of the things I’m so excited about with the opportunity in Rochester as interim superintendent is to try to create systems within the district that are coherent -- that just make sense.”

Vision for the District

During his interview with the Rochester School Board, Pekel said he would strive to make the year dynamic rather than static, even though the position he is stepping into is temporary.

How does one do that after having just arrived on the scene with a ticking clock?

Repeatedly, he referred to the power of inserting relationships into the core DNA of the district. Coming into the role of superintendent from years in research, he knows the impact that developmental relationships can have. That said, he says it needs to be an intentional effort.

“The relationship is this thing that we just expect to happen if we get the curriculum right, or if we get the program right. And in fact, what we know from research is that the relationship is a thing in and of itself,” Pekel said. “If we can elevate relationships in that year, I think it will set the district up for amazing work beyond the course of that year.”

The importance of developing relationships in educational settings was the subject of a TedTalk Pekel gave in Fargo. During that speech, he talked about the ways in which those relationships can be cultivated.

The school board also asked him about issues the district has already been trying to address. Throughout his hour-long interview with the board, Pekel referenced his work with equity and diversity more than once, at one point calling it “the hallmark of his career.”

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He later expounded on his thoughts during a conversation with the Rochester Post Bulletin.

“What can sometimes happen when you have a conversation about equity is that it gets quickly translated into a zero-sum game of us against them or some kids against other kids,” Pekel said. “I am just as concerned about accelerating the learning of that kid who’s doing extremely well and coming from a very education-focused family as I am about that kid who’s way behind.”

Equity is one of Rochester’s highest non-academic priorities. In the wake of George Floyd, the district dedicated more than $100,000 in additional funding toward equity-related work, resulting in the creation of a three-year equity plan and the hiring of a cabinet-level position dedicated to the issue.

Of course, talk is cheap. And for those who haven’t dived into the nitty-gritty details of his career , it can be hard to tell what’s lip service and what’s genuine care for the situation.

However, his daughter Lauren Oubre doesn’t have any doubts about the extent to which Pekel will fight for the wellbeing of all the students entrusted to his leadership.

Pekel has raised a blended family. His first wife, Tanya, had a child from a previous relationship. Then he and Tanya had children together before she passed away from breast cancer. He then married his current wife Katie, who brought her own children into the family.

Oubre is Tanya's first child. But Oubre and Pekel have always been close since he came into her life when she was an infant. Now 25, she remembers going into his office where he had a globe of the world. Oubre would spin the globe and pick a country, at which point Pekel would tell her a story about it. She remembers Pekel taking her hand as a young child and walking with her outside to show her that she didn’t need to be afraid of the bees.

As much as he was there for her during those simple moments, he also turned into a fierce defender when she began facing some of the harsher lessons she came across as a student of color.

“I know that my dad was my biggest ally and my first ally, before knowing what an ally looked like or really was,” Oubre said. “I think that my dad has always been mindful of the fact that he is a white man and there are some things that he just can’t teach us. That doesn’t mean that he’s incapable, it just means it would be wrong of him to take the spotlight off of others. He really made sure (we) had diverse teachers growing up and that we had diverse role models.”

A long time coming

Although Pekel is a new face to most people in Rochester, he has at least one fan among the ranks of former RPS superintendents.

“I was impressed with the decision of our school board,” former RPS Superintendent Jerry Williams said. “I believe he is going to bring a skillset to this school district that is important for both the district and the community at this time.”

Pekel and Williams go back a number of years. They met when Pekel was helping facilitate a consortium of superintendents throughout the state when he was working in the St. Paul School District .

In some ways, the fact that Pekel is stepping into the position at RPS is the culmination of a conversation that happened some 15 years ago between the two men. At the time, Williams was getting ready to step down from the position and he casually encouraged Pekel to look into the possibility of coming to Rochester.

Instead, Pekel moved on to other pursuits. Since 2012, he has been the CEO of the organization Search Institute.

Both men remember that conversation and even though it's been more than a decade since then, Williams has nothing but optimism about the work Pekel will do. To Williams, the fact that Pekel has never held a superintendency is a non-issue.

Instead, Williams pointed to the other work Pekel has done throughout the years. He pointed to the fact that Pekel's career has allowed him to work with districts across the board.

"He knows what good schools are like. And he knows what poorly performing school are like, and what they need to do differently," Williams said. “That’s the kind of person that I want leading my school district."

Leadership qualities

As someone who’s known and worked with Pekel for the last 10 years, Cheryl Mayberry has a strong concept of Pekel’s abilities. She currently works as the Chief Operating Officer for Search Institute, where Pekel served as CEO right before accepting the position with Rochester Public Schools.

According to Mayberry, Pekel can be a force of nature, relentlessly moving forward, driven by an abundance of curiosity and a sharp intellect. That means, she said, that those who work with him have to be ready to go.

“When we’re at home eating dinner with our families, Kent is thinking about Search Institute and thinking about what’s next to do,” Mayberry said. “So I tell people, ‘you need to be on top of your game. If you’re not on top of your game, Kent’s going to have thought about your job and his job and will come to the table with ideas.’”

Looking to the long term

Pekel has a year-long contract with Rochester Public Schools. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a lot of time. And yet, he’s making some fairly significant life changes in order to accommodate that relatively brief commitment: He’s in the process of selling his home in St. Paul. He’s leaving a nine-year run at the Search Institute, which he described as the kind of position many people would consider the pinnacle of their career.

It would seem he’s setting himself up for a much longer transition. And, to some degree, he’s willing to acknowledge as much. He told the Post Bulletin that if the coming year goes well, he plans to apply for the permanent superintendent's position.

During his interview with the Rochester School Board, he was asked why he wanted to take the position. In response, he described Rochester as an “education-infused community” and that he saw the potential for it to become even more so.

He then pivoted to the fact that it's a unique moment in history for school districts. He spoke about how the “real” reopening for schools following the pandemic will happen this fall. He said it will be important for them not just to revert to the normal routine of what they had been doing.

He said later that he wants to be part of that transition to something better. He wants to make it happen. This next year will be the testing ground for what that change might look like.

“Yes, I’m leaving a really good job that I care about,” Pekel said. “I think we’re at an incredible moment coming out of COVID, coming out of the struggles for racial justice to build something better.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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