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An Interview with Dan Gehrke, LuHi's Executive Director

Posted by Hannah Buchholz on Apr 19, 2017 9:04:00 AM

dan-gehrke.jpgFor those that may not know you well, talk about yourself and your role a little?

So this is my 22nd year as a part of Lutheran High School in the Denver metro area. I started as a math and theology teacher at Denver Lutheran and later became principal there. I moved into this current role - Executive Director (or CEO, or Head of School) - when we consolidated Denver Lutheran and Lutheran Parker before the 2011-2012 school year.

My job is to carry out the vision and critical targets that our board of directors places in front of me. Not an original line by any means - but I tell people that my job is to “raise the vision, raise the people, raise the funds.”

So of those things, on what do you place the most importance?

Well, I certainly have to focus on all of them to keep us moving forward, pay the bills, and try and help coach the right culture for Lutheran High School to be successful.

With that being said, probably “raise the people” is on my mind most often. I have to have quality people in the right positions here. For example, I don’t mind telling people that it is critical for me to have a respect for and a great relationship with our principal.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with having David Ness as principal since I started in this role. Having been a principal prior, I know the demands and skills needed to be successful in that role. David and I are two very different people (ask anyone) but we work hard to let our strengths and differences work to our advantage. I think it is one of the school’s hidden strengths, and we meet regularly and work hard to be on the same page. I need that from all of our most important positions.

You mentioned the board of directors and their critical targets. Help the average person understand how that structure works.

Good question. I like to brag on our board of directors every chance I get. Those eight people have big goals and dreams for Lutheran High School. We meet once a month and in true “policy-based governance” style, they focus on big goals for the organization and making sure that I don’t do things that violate policy or make them uncomfortable.

They very rarely get hung up worrying about the day-to-day things associated with running a school. I’m blessed by their thinking and their self-discipline around policy based governance. I have great freedom to drive the vision of the school, but I also have excellent parameters. I also should note that they do annually evaluate me around how much I am “making it rain” so to speak around the critical targets they put in front of me.

So what is the vision for Lutheran High School?

When we consolidated six years ago we were faced with such uncertainty about not only the future of Lutheran High School, but of the future of Christian high school education in general. The Parker campus had 175 students. We set modest enrollment growth projections and set out to “grow the school.”

With that being said, we also clarified our message - that we exist to serve the community so that God can impact the lives of others. Other schools may have flashier vision statements that speak of excellence or changing the world, but we were in search of how to serve the Parker community best by surrounding families with talented people in a relational Christian high school.

That vision at its core has not changed. While we have been blessed with increased enrollment, those targets and goals are secondary to how well we are carrying out the vision and maintaining our core values.

So what do you consider to be the school’s greatest strength?

Our culture. I think the student and employee culture at Lutheran High School is second to none. I think it’s amazing how much our students just simply like going to school here. They like their teachers. I wonder if people appreciate that it isn’t like that at every school.

And I don’t think that anyone should underestimate the importance of employees who are servant minded, love kids, and are good at their jobs. I lead people who are committed to our vision and mission.

I absolutely believe that our academics overall is of the utmost importance, but what good is that if the culture of the school stinks or kids do not like or respect their teachers?

What do you consider to be the school’s greatest weakness from a business standpoint?

When we consolidated six years ago, it was like starting over from scratch in a lot of ways. While the Colorado Lutheran High School Association has a long history, it generally has always been a year to year break even venture.

I’ve had internal goals to change that, and we have made great strides in regard to running efficiently, clearing bad debt, running annual surpluses, and building some emergency reserves. Combined with the debt that still exists from the original campus construction, our major weakness is that we don’t have a 50-year old endowment or 25 years worth of annual reserves stockpiled to take on big capital projects.

While our annual giving numbers are actually pretty impressive, it would be nice to be sitting on some discretionary funds that could aid building projects or capital improvements. We are getting there - I just wish we were more ahead in that regard.

What do you think the future looks like in regards to enrollment?

Over two years ago, we put on our website that we had a goal of reaching 600 students by the 2019-2020 school year. My guess is that we will have a similar sized freshmen class for next school year (around 160 students) which would put us over 525 students.

Then I would guess 575 for the 2018-2019 school year. Then the smallest class graduates, and we could be well over 600 students by the 2019-2020 school year. With that being said, I do realize (and have lived) that nothing is guaranteed in regards to enrollment in the world of private Christian schools. I take nothing for granted as it relates to enrollment growth.

Are you worried that as the school grows that it will be harder to deliver on the school’s core values?

That’s a great question and one that the Board wrestled with just recently - whether being 600+ students is counterproductive to the mission. The Board unanimously agreed that an enrollment number is just that - a number.

But make no mistake, their vision is that our core values are guarded fiercely through the process. They will not accept a Lutheran High School that is not firmly committed to a Christian worldview, a highly relational environment, and a commitment to hiring the best teachers. If enrollment growth hampers that vision, I guarantee they will put on the brakes.

They know and understand the mission and want us to follow through on the vision to serve the community. On a side note, I think some people worry that class sizes will increase with the growth. The truth is that we have always hired adequately to handle the increases and our average class sizes have actually decreased consistently year to year. Plus, it’s actually easier to have lower class sizes when more periods exist to balance the classes.

Can the campus hold that many students?

Yes - for the next two years. We are planning some room switches for next year that will increase our number of classroom spaces. With some clever scheduling and space usage we can have 550 in class at the same time.

Keep in mind that wouldn’t be the enrollment limit - not every student is in class during every period with lunches, study halls, off-campus periods, etc. The current campus will not be adequate for the 2019-2020 school year if enrollment trends continue as is.

That is why we are focusing our attention on Greater Impact Phase 2 - to add additional classrooms to the current campus and be able to eliminate the modular classrooms. The Phase 2 addition needs to be finished by the start of the 2019-2020 school year. That’s an exciting challenge - also a little daunting - but we are committed to making it happen.

So what about parking?

I often joke that everyone would love Lutheran High School if we just all had reserved parking spots to ourselves. Interestingly, our ratio of students to parking spots is actually very similar to other private Christian schools in the area - we just haven’t limited student parking.

With that being said, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we need more parking and a better plan for dropoff and pickup in the future. The best scenario would be for us to add additional parking sometime in the next 15 months. If we cannot fund that, it will have to be a part of the Phase 2 plans.

In the meantime, we will entertain creative ways to maximize parking. This may have to include limiting student parking for the 2017-2018 school year - but I am going to work hard to not have that necessarily be the case.

Go back to the Phase 2 addition for a minute. Can you give more detail to that?

I believe that two of our core values - “highly relational environment” and “talented teachers” - would be enhanced even more with classrooms that are designed around student engagement.

We have visited numerous schools recently that have designs that can be labeled as “engaging learning space.” We’ve recently interviewed architects and have decided on a firm with experience and creativity in that area. They will evaluate our existing space and create an addition that makes “highly relational” and “student engagement” come to life.

I envision “Parker library” meets “Google office space.” I’m excited. I think we can do something that no high school in the area has really done. I’m a firm believer that classroom space should be designed to maximize academic design. Our Academies and certain classes need engaging space in which to operate.

So this addition is needed for the 2019-2020 school year. That means breaking ground in the summer of 2018? How will that be funded?

Correct on the time frame. That’s the goal. We have a lot of work to do in the next 15 months to make that a reality. We are currently seeing what we believe we could raise to fund Phase 2.

We will need some level of assurance as to what we can raise before we press “go.” Some combination of a capital campaign, budget surplus, and/or some short term bridge loan financing is probably the answer.

Due to our organization’s bad relationship with debt in the past, both the Board and I are reluctant to add any significant long-term principal to the current debt on the organization unless the rates are such that our annual payments mirror a metric that we are absolutely certain that we can maintain. Therefore, it will be a huge community effort to fund what I believe will be around a 3 million dollar plus addition.

So with these big plans...do you have the energy for this?

I’m energized daily by two distinct thoughts that I think may answer that:

  1. This is not a solo project. I’m carrying out a vision put forth by the Board and I’m surrounded by great people - teachers, leaders, stakeholders, donors, parents, students, etc. that can buy into a vision and help make it happen
  2. God knows the plans He has for Lutheran High School and will bless it as He sees fit. And FYI, He hasn’t let anyone down yet. I’m 44 and blessed with pretty good energy. Most days I welcome the challenge of leading this Lutheran High School in one of the most unique places in the country to do private Christian education. I’m motivated to make this work despite all of the challenges and competition for students. I happen to also have a very supportive wife who understands the time and effort needed for the job.

What about you would surprise people?

Oh I don’t know - that I do smile once in awhile? If not that, probably just how much of a fan I am of Lutheran secondary education. I’m a product of it. When I was struggling with questions about my faith as a teenager, it was my Lutheran High School (in Springfield, IL) teachers that taught me about apologetics, how to defend my faith, how to live my faith.

I do actually believe 100% that God uses Lutheran High School to transform lives. I picture this school at this time and place like the mustard seed that sprouts into this huge tree that is a part of God’s kingdom.

What are things that you wish the community understood more about Lutheran High School?

Probably three things I guess:

  • First, we really do try and make decisions through the filter of “what is best for kids?” followed closely by “what keeps us open?” That’s difficult at times, but I do preach to everyone that works at Lutheran High School to view ourselves through the lens of a small start-up business that has to care for its customers and run lean and mean.

  • Secondly, 84% of our annual operating budget revenue comes from tuition and fees. If we tried to fund it at 100%, every family would pay significantly more in tuition annually. If we want to continue to extend assistance to families in need, we have to raise significant money every year through the annual fund, the RRR Parent Fund, the auction, etc. to make the budget work. The other two options for private Christian education in our area charge well over $17,000 when you add up fees and such. We have chosen to try and make our product more affordable with assistance for those families that qualify, but the tradeoff is the need for people to give back. I dream of a world where every Lutheran High School family makes a donation back to the school every year.

  • Thirdly, and this one may seem minor, but I do wish people understood more how much we value feedback. Because our Board adheres to policy based governance, parents have to take their suggestions and provide feedback directly to the people that are charged with running the school, namely Mr. Ness and myself. I think David and I are most frustrated when we say, “I didn’t know that was happening.” I think we use constructive feedback pretty well. I can remember a parent survey we did a few years ago and someone even recommended a book for me to read on customer service. I did, and we are still using parts of it for new teacher training. That’s pretty cool stuff.

Any parting thoughts for the Lutheran High School community?

Along the lines of the last question, I hope parents can find time to take our parent survey at the end of the month. I also hope that every family that is currently enrolled comes back for next year. We are reminded during Easter about what God did for us - that His grace is sufficient for all of us. At Lutheran High School you are reminded of that every day. I want that for all of our current families and for future ones as well.

The Academies at LuHi

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