When Casey Bertram was interviewed for the job of superintendent of the Bozeman School District, he was no stranger to the school board. After 10 years at Bozeman — seven as elementary school principal and nearly three at central office — he was already acting superintendent.
“I was particularly nervous (tonight) and kept wondering why. And it’s that 7,465. What we do every day really matters. What we do for the kids really matters and I take this position very seriously. I believe that every student deserves a great public school and that’s my job,” Bertram said this January evening.
Before entering the Willson council chamber, he had written 7,465 on his hand – the number of students enrolled in the district at that time.
In his office, six months after that interview and in his first official month as superintendent, the conversation turns to the district’s commitment to “ensure that all students achieve at high levels” – goals reflected in the district’s long-term strategic plan and the shorthand phrase “everything means everything”.
“For me, public education is the great equalizer. When done right, it gives all children endless possibilities. It doesn’t matter which parent I’m talking to and what their background or socioeconomic status or ethnicity or race or gender or whatever. They all have something in common that they want endless opportunities for their children,” Bertram said.
In difficult conversations around “everything means everything,” Bertram regularly challenges people to choose a student from the more than 7,400 students enrolled in the district.
“Show me one that you’re going to write off and you’ll say we can’t get them there or they don’t have the potential to be successful,” Bertram said.
For those who spoke to the Chronicle, this passion and unwavering focus on each student is a hallmark of Bertram’s leadership. He has been repeatedly described as a mentor, an empathetic listener and a great thinker.
Bertram knew early on that he wanted to be a teacher and coach. Growing up, her mother had an in-home daycare with mostly the children of local teachers. He landed in elementary school because he believed “in the power of early intervention.”
“The trajectory of young people starting out on the track is really promising. But if you struggle early, you tend to struggle often. I wanted to make an impact there,” he said.
Bertram hadn’t always planned to move into administration. It wasn’t on his radar until mentors around him – like the first manager he worked with and later former Bozeman superintendent Rob Watson – encouraged him to take on leadership roles. .
Prior to moving to Bozeman, Bertram spent six years as a principal at Hedges Elementary and five years as a teacher and then vice-principal at Edgerton Elementary, both at Kalispell Public Schools. He was hired in 2013 as principal of Bozeman’s Hawthorne Elementary.
Marilyn King, assistant superintendent of curriculum, was on the hiring committee that selected Bertram.
“I remember he knocked our socks off,” she said. “I remember the feeling I had when Casey was interviewing, and I knew he was a special person.”
Laura Conwell, principal of Longfellow Elementary School, was a teacher at Hawthorne when Bertram was principal. Although their working relationship has changed over the past few years, one of the guiding principles has been mentorship, she said.
“When I was a new teacher at Bozeman, he did a great job guiding me through this and (now) mentoring me as an administrator and helping me through the pandemic and learning a new personal,” she said. “He’s also always been really there for me or anyone else.”
As principal, Conwell said she feels supported by the central office team, with Bertram attending weekly elementary principals’ meetings and district-wide building administration meetings.
“It creates consistency throughout the buildings, which I think was really needed,” Conwell said. “We know that every child in every building gets a very similar upbringing.”
In addition to mentorship, Conwell said Bertram is willing to be vulnerable, to own up to his mistakes and to speak up when he doesn’t know something — qualities that make it easier for others to do the same.
Conwell recounts a memory of his days at Hawthorne when Bertram, as headmaster, watched him teach. During a math lesson, Conwell made a mistake and Bertram kindly pointed it out to him. During a staff meeting, teachers were asked to share the “failures” of their week.
“I shared this example and we talked about it a lot with all the staff. It’s something I would never admit to anyone, but he made me feel like I could trust him, and that will help all of our staff grow and we’re not perfect,” Conwell said.
Bertram was also known to dress up as an elf on the shelf during his Hawthorne days.
“He’s really charismatic and I think he often looks more serious than he is. He can be fun and funny and really honest,” Conwell said. “It’s really refreshing.”
Transition to central office
After seven years at Hawthorne, during which the school became the district’s first professional learning community, Bertram transitioned into central office administration in the summer of 2020.
“Casey’s statement was that he didn’t want to come to central office unless he could shine some light on those dark corners, on what we don’t do particularly well,” said Mike Waterman, executive director of business and operations.
Waterman recalls Bertram’s interview for the assistant superintendent position.
“I’ve never been in an interview where an administrator put their student test scores on their resume,” Waterman said. “We talk about being for the students, that’s why we’re here. He identified with it to the point where his academic achievement marks were on his resume. I’ve never seen anyone personally take on that kind of responsibility.
That dedication extends to Bertram’s work as a Children’s Advocacy Project mentor, Waterman said.
“It shows his commitment to children and to helping them however he can and being committed to them,” he said. He added that Bertram had also encouraged others in central office to become mentors.
Bertram started as assistant superintendent as the district grappled with a back-to-school plan amid the pandemic and rose to acting superintendent amid unexpected leadership changes.
“It was a crazy time to move to central office,” Bertram said.
One of his first major projects as assistant superintendent was the deployment of Canvas, a learning management system. Although he still felt like it was the best decision at the time, he said he learned from the experience.
“We should have involved our stakeholders more,” Bertram said. “It also touched on the importance of communication, that without the whole story, people will fill in the blanks on any topic. And often they fill in the blanks with things that aren’t positive.
Soon after, King and Bertram were named acting co-superintendents. During this time, the two worked closely together to calm the waters.
“We were very focused on continuing to move forward and provide stability for the district and supporting our students, families and educators through difficult times,” King said. “We never wanted to lose sight of student support.”
King and Bertram launched a weekly newsletter for District families and employees and a monthly newsletter for the greater Bozeman area. Communication continued under Bertram.
“It was one of our priorities. There was a lot going on and we think as a public institution transparency is crucial,” King said.
After several months as co-superintendents, Bertram became acting superintendent in the fall of 2021. Following a nationwide search, Bertram was hired as superintendent in January 2022, with the position officially beginning this summer.
While he had initial concerns about the communication, commitment and politics of being a superintendent, Bertram said he enjoyed the role. This broadened his understanding of the importance of a local school district.
“It’s really elevated my sense of responsibility to the taxpayers and my sense of responsibility to all the moms and dads who depend on this school district to work with their children more hours a day than they often are at home,” he said.
Those who spoke to the Chronicle all described Bertram as an empathetic listener. But it’s something he said didn’t come naturally to him.
“I’m learning to listen more and talk less,” Bertram said. “The scale of this operation with the number of staff we have, the number of students we have, my role needs to change to empower others, support teams and develop leaders.”
He attributed some of his growth in this area to the district’s consensus process.
“The first two times I was okay with it, I thought it was moving too slow and it was too delicate, too sensitive,” Bertram said. “Now it’s up to us. I don’t know of a better process for having a diverse group in a room and they all leave feeling supported and heard. They may not necessarily agree with the decision, but they will support it.
Bertram highlighted his experience last fall with the district’s equity policy. While that may not have gotten everyone on the same page, Bertram said, he considered it a success.
“It brought down a lot of fear and anxiety in the community that both sides of the political spectrum were kind of seeing the very aberrant things going on in the country and saying, ‘Oh my God, is this happening? pass here? bertram said
With about a month to go until the 2022-23 school year begins, Bertram said he knows there will be tough conversations ahead, including ongoing discussions about the district’s budget deficit and the upcoming legislative session. in January 2023.
“The work we do is human work. It’s the connections and relationships we build that are the only way forward,” Bertram said.
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