The little school district that’s ahead of the curve

Rick Sansted recently experienced what many parents in Alexandria, Minnesota, eventually do: His son called home from college and said, “Wow, I didn’t realize that not every high school was like our high school.”

As the superintendent of Alexandria Public Schools, Rick knew their district was different. But hearing it this way was satisfying.

When his son’s twin brother also noticed a difference—his professors were asking where he’d picked up such good public speaking skills—it further confirmed for Rick that his school district is doing something special.

A completely different kind of high school

Alexandria Area High School has been setting new standards in education for years.

In 2013, when the school board and community came together to reinvent the way they approach secondary education, Alexandria became one of the first places in the country to adopt an academy-style high school.

Now, each student pursues the career field of their choice alongside a small cohort of fellow students. Community and business leaders teach them the actual skills they’ll need to succeed. And graduates leave with real-world experience in fields like business, nursing, engineering, and more.

“Our business partners in this community have really embraced the idea of helping kids succeed. They’ve given our students opportunities to lead and grow.”

Rick Sansted, Superintendent of the Alexandria Public Schools

Preparing kids for their future

Rick says his goal is to prepare kids for their next phase of life.

“We want to make sure you’ve got tools in your toolbox that allow you to have a skill, or to have a career,” he says. “Whether that’s in the trades, whether that’s healthcare, owning your own daycare, awesome. We don’t care what it is, but let’s help you uncover what it is for you, so you can pursue a career that you’re invested in. You don’t have to make that decision for the rest of your life, but you do need to start somewhere, and try something.”

He adds, “That’s what our high school is about. We’re helping kids find their passion and follow it.”

It’s an innovative approach, and Alexandria graduates stand out when they head into the world. So does the school district.

“We want to make sure you’ve got tools in your toolbox that allow you to have a skill, or to have a career.”

Rick Sansted, Superintendent of the Alexandria Public Schools

Ahead of the curve in many ways

Alexandria’s public schools have been ahead in other ways as well. The district revamped its reading curriculum well before any guidance at the state level. They installed cameras on the stop-arms of their school buses before it became a trend. And—because they took the time to ask students what they want in their education—they’re one of the few high schools in the country to add a class in aviation.

But being innovative has never been the goal. Teaching kids well is what they’re focused on.

“This is just our regular work,” says Rick. “We might not always realize we’re ahead of the curve until three or four years from now when someone says, ‘Oh, by the way, have you heard of this new thing?’ And we say, ‘Yeah, we’re already doing that.’”


A school district that’s willing to learn

Rick and his team of teachers and administrators are continually working to improve the way they teach, and they’re doing it in the same way they encourage students to learn: They research, they ask questions, they pay attention to what’s working (and what’s not), they test new approaches, and they’re not afraid to readjust when something isn’t right. 

“When you create space for feedback loops, and you take the time to listen, you really have a chance to get better.”

Rick Sansted, Superintendent of the Alexandria Public Schools

“You have to be really invested in continuous improvement,” says Rick, “because sometimes you’re ahead of the curve and it doesn’t quite work.”

As an example, he says the district recently made a software update that ended up not doing what they needed it to. “So, we’re going to switch again, because we missed the mark,” he says. “But that’s part of learning.”


The community makes the difference

If you ask Rick what really makes his schools so strong though, he doesn’t hesitate. It’s the unique community of Alexandria. In an area that has just one school district, one police department, and one shopping area for the entire community, there’s a kind of unity many other school districts don’t have. 

“We see each other at the grocery store, we see each other at Target, we see each other at the local theater,” says Rick. “The benefit of those small-town relationships really adds to the unity of our community.”

He says that sense of community motivates parents, volunteers, service clubs, businesses, and faith communities to help support the students in town.

“Kids are not a hard thing to get united behind. It’s actually pretty easy. ”

Rick Sansted, Superintendent of the Alexandria Public Schools

“There’s something in Alexandria, from a community standpoint, that is special,” says Rick. “When you are one, as a community, I think it’s just easier to get united behind kids. And that then produces a lot of hope.”

And hope in the next generation is something Rick believes everyone should have.

“Our students are amazing. There’s some amazing talent out there that’s fourteen, fifteen, seventeen years old,” he says. ”If you work or volunteer in our schools, you get to see that on a regular basis.”

Looking for a great community with exceptional schools?

You won’t find better than Alexandria.