One-on-one interview with Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Paul Gausman

Superintendent Gausman speaks on growth within the school district, ongoing efforts to keep schools safe and how each school is prioritizing mental health.
Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 10:47 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 16, 2022 at 10:59 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Exciting, refreshing and challenging are three words new Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Paul Gausman used to describe his first month on the job. During a 20 minute interview with Superintendent Gausman, he spoke on growth within the school district, ongoing efforts to keep schools safe and how each school is prioritizing mental health.

NATHAN: What has it been like since transitioning into this role?

DR. GAUSMAN: It’s just been all things really, it’s been like drinking from a fire hose to a certain extent. Trying to learn as much as I possibly can and it’s been exciting, refreshing and a little bit challenging from time to time finding my way around Lincoln. This community is continuing to grow and change, so I’ve just enjoyed every bit of it. I’ve always loved being a school superintendent and I really feel like it’s an important role just digging in and learning all that I can and these first few days has been a real blessing.

NATHAN: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what led you back to Lincoln?

DR. GAUSMAN: I grew up in Fremont, Nebraska, my dad was a long time president of the school board, my mom was a real supporter of the education system and things that were going on, education was essential to our world. I went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, because in my family we are not aware that there are other colleges out there, because my dad was an athlete at the University. When I went to the University of Nebraska and it was at that time at that age I was a fairly accomplished percussionist, so I went into music education and after doing that, realized that leadership and some of the administrative work that could be done was a great value was a wonderful mission. So I started my career as a band director in Windsor, and then I was the school administrator in the Sioux Falls area of South Dakota and in Sioux City, Iowa before coming back to Lincoln.

NATHAN: What does it mean to you now that you’re back in Lincoln in this role and you get to see the growth of all these students right here where you’re from?

DR. GAUSMAN: Lincoln has changed so much, not just the geography and the size of community, but Lincoln Public Schools is really a global school district. We’re welcoming students from all over the country all the time and we celebrate that, but it changes a little bit of the way we do our business. It’s a district of a little over 42,000 students. When I left Lincoln last was 1994 and I think 70th Street was farmland, so to see how much it’s grown to the east now and to the south it’s just been extraordinary. Over the last 20 to 30 years since I’ve been coming back to Lincoln I didn’t really recognize the growth and change because a lot of my time was spent around campus. To be able to be in all parts of the community has shown me not just that it’s grown, but the changes are there and I love what this community has done.

NATHAN: What are you prioritizing right now as we had toward the first days of school?

DR. GAUSMAN: As you come in as a new superintendent in a district this size when you’ve gotten nearly 8,000 staff members and 42,000-plus students, the number one thing anyone should do in my opinion is just build relationships and discover as much as you can discover. I don’t sense that I was hired to come in and change the whole process, I was hired because I have a background and expertise in education. My initial hundred or so days in this district I’m just everywhere I can be in the community and using even some technological connections to connect with people who maybe can’t meet in person. What I’m really asking people as I meet with them, what are the things that you celebrate, what are some challenges that we need to work on together, what should be our vision for the future? It’s time for this district to rewrite the strategic plan over the next year or so.

NATHAN: You mention that new version of the strategic plan, what’s that going to look like moving forward and in these first couple years now that you’ve taken over?

DR. GAUSMAN: Before I arrived the board finished one leg and component of that, which they refer to as the “all means all equity plan.” I think it’s important for us to educate our own community about the make up of the school district. Somewhere between 40 to 50 percent of our students are in poverty, the strategies are different for students that are dealing with those challenges. A lot of times when students are in poverty both parents and guardians might be working, they might not have all the support at home that they might otherwise have, so we need to do different things with that. There are over 130 home languages spoken in this district, we’re bringing students into the district all the time with different languages, different world experiences. Our strategies have to be a little different to serve them. We work with a greater than the national average students who have disabilities and because our special education department is so great, we have students coming from all over the regions and you have to take a look at the ways in which you serve them. This community invests so much in this district, we owe it to the community to return that investment to them with heightened student achievement.

NATHAN: A big focus is always education, making sure that students are learning when they’re in the classroom. What are you doing to make sure there’s a focus and that parents know when they’re sending their kids to school they’re getting top quality education?

DR. GAUSMAN: One of the most recent things we’ve done is share more with the community about the work that we’re doing within the area of safety and security. It’s a very important topic, something that I wish we didn’t have to talk a lot about, but that’s what leadership exists to do. I’m very proud of our team in this district, but also the partnerships that have been developed to make certain that as people send their student to school we’re doing all that we can to keep them safe so that their focus is not on their own safety, but rather on their own achievement. I’ve been impressed with class sizes in this district compared to other counterparts in the region and the investment the district has made in staff to serve students in classrooms, but also in the supporting programs.

NATHAN: How are you making sure that your teachers are prepared and everyone in the building is prepared and being safe and secure?

DR. GAUSMAN: It starts with our own team. Our own security team that we have in the district is out of this world with expertise and knowledge and they continue to grow in their own knowledge and training. Of course, we have to step beyond that and train all staff and with 8,000 staff members there’s a lot of work to do. I don’t want to overlook the partnership that we have at the mayor’s office and with the Lincoln Police Department who have really been good partners to us as we continued to review our planning. Even some team members at the University have helped us with security as well. Schools at times feel a little less welcoming to the general public than maybe they did 50 years ago; the doors are locked, there’s doorbells, there’s video cameras everywhere and audio systems. I commend the board and previous administrations for doing all they can to not only develop and implement a security team, but go beyond that and train staff on how to handle situations and I’m really pleased with the standard response protocol that’s in this district.

NATHAN: There are some new schools that are going to be filtering into the entire district, can you tell me about that growth and how you’re still prioritizing education even though it is growing?

DR. GAUSMAN: You mentioned class sizes, that’s part of the reason we’re building the schools. Were growing into new regions and new sections of our community and we want to make certain that we maintain that Lincoln way of doing the schooling in the public schools. Continuing to build facilities for growth is something that I celebrate. This isn’t something that a lot of school districts and superintendents engage in, but in my career and before moving to Lincoln I was involved personally with 24 construction projects and school construction happens to be something I know a fair amount about. Many of those locations we were replacing schools rather than building new ones for growth, so that’s a little different here in Lincoln. I think part of the reason I get to celebrate, that is Lincoln has built some of the most incredible structures over the years and you look at some of the great old facilities in this community like Lincoln High or Elliot Elementary that are just gorgeous old buildings that have been so well-maintained and adapted for what we know today. We’re getting ready to open Robinson Elementary school, Lincoln Northwest High School and Standing Bear is under construction. Those are designed differently because we know more today than we did in 1914. All of these facilities I see them as facilities the community can be proud of, a real blessing regardless of the age of the original facility work that’s been done to keep all facilities of equitable standard in terms of offering for students and staff to learn.

NATHAN: A big discussion right now is mental health, what are you doing specifically in the public school system to make sure that is prioritized and every kid is accounted for?

DR. GAUSMAN: In a lot of school district models and the model I’ve always been a part of, the school district typically partners with another agency to bring in psychology services and social services. It’s different in Lincoln because we have this “one town one district model” that we do all of that in-house, we are our own supportive agency. We have grown in the number of staff members that provide these services and one of the things we’ve been talking a great deal about is the way in which we identify students and staff members who need those extra services to make certain that we’re getting them those services that they need and deserve. It’s a little early in my time, but I’m proud of the systems that I’ve seen in place thus far for students to be identified and begin receiving those services that will help them be successful.

NATHAN: Nervous for first days of school, ready for the first days of school?

DR. GAUSMAN: Always nervous for the first day of school, it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m the band director or the superintendent of schools in Lincoln, the first day of school is always so exciting. In education we have the blessing of being able to say Happy New Year twice a year, not only in January when everyone says it, but at the beginning of the school year as well.

NATHAN: It’s your first year in this role, what are you looking most forward to?

DR. GAUSMAN: To me the work that any leader of this sort of position does in the first 90 days or the first nine months can really set the groundwork for success for the first nine years or beyond. I know that I’ve got to do a lot to invest in my work, because this community has invested a lot into the schools and we owe it to this community to return the investment with great quality programming, heightened student achievement and solid communication. I’m just most excited about coming in every day and learning new things.

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