Magnusson and his staff have critical role to fill for students and community alike

September 12, 2018

David Magnusson, pictured with the highly significant buffalo at Sacred Heart Community School in Regina, was one of two Saskatchewan principals chosen as the country’s Outstanding Principals.

REGINA – If we’re being honest, for some it might be one of those eye-rolling moments. After all, how often have we heard an award winner demur and say that it’s a complete team effort?

That was precisely the refrain used by David Magnusson, principal at Sacred Heart Community School, when he was one of two Saskatchewan administrators chosen among the 40 feted by the Learning Partnership as the country’s Outstanding Principals.

So when the visitor asks for examples of this noble statement, it quickly becomes evident that Magnusson not only is readily prepared to accommodate the query, but also it is a statement he genuinely stands behind.

“It is for sure totally a team effort. We have people on this staff who give so much of themselves and that’s just as much in terms of volunteering outside school hours as in the classroom. Probably every teacher has an involvement in a couple of different aspects outside of what would be considered as being regular to a teacher.

“In fact it goes right from the kitchen staff in preparing the meals every day (we’re talking 100 breakfasts and as many as 350 lunches served), to staff who will pick students up in the morning and visit them and their parents at home. I’ve seen it personally; how it can be quite an eye-opener for new staff. It’s not for everyone,” Magnusson said.

For perspective, it can’t be ignored that some years ago there was the infamous article in Maclean’s magazine where this newly built, state-of-the-art facility was right in the middle of what was characterized as the worst community in Canada.

The challenges are immense. When one considers widespread poverty and a high crime rate, they invariably tend to intersect. So unavoidably, that sort of daily reality is what students at this PreK-8 facility cope with–aside from such byproducts as not always having had the daily nourishment most of us take for granted.

“The reputation of Sacred Heart in this community is huge, and kids want to come here because we’re known as a safe place. We work hard to show our families, through the actions of our staff, that we have made great strides. We’ve coined the phrase that we’re the ‘Heart’ of the community,” Magnusson smiled.

He elaborated how circumstances dictate that this crown jewel of a school is in fact much more than that for students and families alike. Take, for example, the popular community lodge area near the front door where it is commonplace for parents and family members to come in and read the paper in the morning and to visit while also grabbing a cup of coffee.

According to Magnusson, there is a concerted effort to gain the trust of First Nations and Métis members of the community given that the vast majority of the student population are of that background, and thereby are motivated to learn more about their own rich cultural heritage.

“There’s definitely work to be done but we’re seeing some really good things, and we have received positive feedback from the community. That in itself makes it easier when sometimes you have to have those tough conversations because they know it’s a safe environment,” Magnusson observed.

At least Magnusson is well acquainted with the realities of the situation, having been vice-principal for 18 months while the new school was being built on pretty much the same site as the previous facility. He has also spent a similar time as principal at Sacred Heart 2.

“I’ve spent my entire career [23 years] in a community school setting, and that’s where I feel most at home and able to be successful. It just fits my personality in terms of what I feel is important. It can be very rewarding and also challenging,” he said.

Although by most measures they would be considered worlds apart, Magnusson cited his formative years growing up in the small community of Wynyard as having that community atmosphere he strives to replicate.

Magnusson wore a wry smile when he acknowledged that he is always looking for new ideas when it comes to improving student achievement, including the guided reading program for example, which has required a significant shift in the schedule but has been integral in students achieving the highest benchmarks yet seen.

“Our division [Regina Catholic School Division] has been very supportive in understanding that our goals might be a little different here, and we’ve been fortunate in terms of some of the extra staff we have been allotted in order to try some new programs.”

He cited the Lips (LiPS) and Seeing Stars reading programs for the younger grades that focuses more on phonics and requires frequent, quite intense repetition, which in some cases has seen students increase six reading levels in a half year.

“I’m open to new programs, and how do you know it won’t work if you don’t try it? So the staff knows that about me for sure,” Magnusson said.

His openness to new ideas was also influenced by working with Elder Mike Pinay, whose favourite saying was that “education is the new buffalo.” This has transcended the school to the extent that when they moved into their new digs, the sports teams were rebranded from the Stars to be known as the Buffaloes.

“It’s just another example of how we continue to try and build bridges with the community through recognizing First Nations culture as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action.

“We are committed to traditions like feasts and pipe ceremonies because these are great opportunities for students to celebrate their culture and identity.”

While very much committed to using data, Magnusson’s approach to the students is about much more than statistics.

He shakes his head when contemplating such arbitrary stats and goals as the Ministry of Education’s fixation with improving on-time graduation rates for First Nations and Métis students in particular.

“It’s about so much more than what a lot of people see and can’t understand if you haven’t been to a school like this and lived it. We are trying to help each kid realize their potential, but you have to remember some of the issues they are dealing with away from school.”

Magnusson stressed the importance of relationships, including with the RCMP, which can mean members of the police force coming to read with the students in their support of literacy and also the Regina Food Bank, which has been an invaluable help.

In his efforts to promote an overall experience, Magnusson has been a major proponent of outdoor education, which has included taking kids on arduous journeys such as to Grey Owl’s Cabin in Prince Albert National Park and Grasslands National Park. Such outings do not only promote an appreciation for nature, but also removes the influences of social media for a while at least.

In addition, he’s coached just about everything from volleyball and track (his first loves) to basketball, which this year was particularly special. The newly constructed gym was always earmarked for the city final for the boys, but during the season there were no home games since construction was not complete. There was no script that Sacred Heart would actually be in the final, but against all the odds they were. In fact, they won the school’s first honour of any sort in its 31-year history and in front of a capacity crowd, whereas only a handful of fans had shown up for games earlier in the season.

“Talk about the perfect ending. To see the looks on the kids’ faces was unbelievable. We probably had at least 80 percent of the staff there cheering us on,” Magnusson recalled.

Asked what he would like his students to say to those from other schools if they were gathered in the same place, Magnusson’s response was quick and decisive.

“I would hope they would talk about the spirit and the culture we have, the staff and the level of engagement; and I know they do that for sure. I hope they would say that through the work of the staff, they don’t miss out on the opportunities that are there at other schools. It’s a great place to be, and I have some wonderful memories to look back on.”

While his home life is admittedly far different from that of the students at the school, Magnusson is quick to praise the support of his wife Kelly and their three daughters, Jenna, Hannah and Alyssa–two of whom will be entering the education field as well.

“Being at this school has changed me for sure; I’ve become a much more flexible and compassionate person. Seeing what we do really makes you think about what is important in life. It’s not how the kids did in their math lesson, it’s about were they fed and did they have a good day. It takes a special teacher to be here, and they genuinely love these kids. Some days it’s really tough to leave it at school, and there’s no question I feel guilty about my lifestyle at home. You lose sleep some days because this place becomes a big part of you.”

New chapter on the horizon

The interview with Regina principal David Magnusson was conducted in June shortly before the end of the school year. He divulged during the conversation that he accepted a position as superintendent with Regina Catholic School Division. But it should be noted that the interview, and his being honoured as one of the country’s 40 Outstanding Principals, was based on his time as principal at Sacred Heart Community School. In Magnusson’s words, he was not actively looking to make the switch but when contacted he realized, “this opportunity only comes so many times, and so it was the timing more than anything. I had no desire to leave. I would have been 100 percent happy to stay. “But this move was in my long-range plans for awhile. I’m looking forward to the opportunity but it will be tough not to be here because my heart is here [Sacred Heart]. In a way, I don’t think the work is done here, but I feel like I’m leaving things in good hands and I feel comfortable. I can’t say anything negative about my time here and it’s been great.”