Interview with Dan Gehrke, Executive Director of LuHi
Executive Director Dan talks big picture at LuHi. He covers topics such as expansion, school safety, and the future of Lutheran High in Parker, CO.
BY Dan Gehrke
Let's check in with Dan Gehkre, LuHi Executive Director, to talk about plans for the future, big-picture planning, and vision.
Talk big picture - how are the plans for campus expansion going?
I think when we did this interview two years ago, I spoke boldly about the entire Phase 2 project needing to be done by the start of this next school year (2019-2020). At the time that meant building a west addition onto the school. With some early success in the capital campaign and a need for extra classrooms by the start of this last school year (the 2018-2019 school year), we decided to do a Phase 2A and get the new weight room done and the Forge remodeled. I am amazed at how God worked out both the planning and funding to make that happen and that we were in our new Forge classrooms by the first...well, second day of school.
When Phase 2A was finished, we immediately turned our attention to our biggest needs for the 2019-2020 school year upcoming this fall. We started the Phase 2B summer work last week, actually. We are going to add about 75 parking spots, bathrooms to the upper floor, upgrade the entire building to LED lighting, and expand/renovate the performing arts room. The interior renovation will also open up a main corridor to improve student traffic flow in the building. I guess to the outside world that may not be too exciting, but I think our current students will enjoy the needed changes.
It’s also important to note that all of the things that we are doing this summer are linked to the western addition plans. When finished, the western addition will have a new cafeteria on the lower level that will be much larger than our current one. Eventually, the entire middle of the school will be one open lobby area linking the front doors to the gym. Due to the expansion of the music room we’ll have a slightly smaller space for lunch in 2019-2020, but we will have three lunch periods to accommodate this.
After that it is on to getting the funding done for the western expansion so that we can make use of it during the 2020-2021 school year. I’m prepared for God to shift our plans as He sees fit, but it’s all on paper at this point and I like how things look.
Does an entire campus master plan exist? Thoughts on a second gym? Fields?
We’ll be posting the final design for the west expansion by the start of the school year. I just met with the architects again about some revisions. Like I mentioned before, it will include additional classrooms and a new cafeteria. It will also have a focus on student services: guidance, leadership, and Access. Plans for a Phase 3 expansion are almost done as well, and those plans do include a second gym. Phase 4 is the development of our lower land for additional athletic fields or facilities. When those plans are finalized, it’s just a matter of funding.
What about a baseball field?
I was hoping you would ask and give me a chance to address that. If you had asked me what our biggest needs are right now, certainly a home field for our baseball program is in the top three. It’s a miserable irony that the former varsity baseball coach turned Executive Director (me) hasn’t found a way to get this done for our boys.
Trust me when I tell you that our Athletics Director Mark Duitsman and I are leaving no stones unturned in seeking a solution. The reality is that with the infrastructure needed to build our own field on our lower land (turf, lights, parking, right-of-way access off of Chambers, etc.), it might be upwards of a 2 million dollar project. In the absence of that funding right now, we are looking for a partnership to use someone else’s field or training facility. Money on an annual basis to lease or rent isn’t the issue - we can do that - it’s just finding the right fit. Unfortunately, Parker is not blessed with a lot of baseball fields. Mark and I would take any and all leads on a solution to this moving forward.
Has working on campus renovation and expansion changed your role?
The primary areas of focus for my job haven’t really changed. I am the sole employee of the Board of Directors of the Colorado Lutheran High School Association. My job is to carry out the critical targets they put in front of me. They set the vision for Lutheran High School and I work daily on driving the organization toward hitting those end goals.
From a job description standpoint, my primary responsibilities are to raise up that vision, fund that vision, and get the right people in place to carry it out. With that being said, my role has changed slightly over the last 18 months as we jumped into Phase 2 of the campus expansion. I’ve spent a lot more time with architects, contractors, banks, and spreadsheets as we look to carry out the vision for the Lutheran High School campus. It’s been a good learning experience and quite frankly, I’ve loved every minute of it - maybe not the construction delays - but everything else has been great.
Where does enrollment stand? Is Lutheran High School getting “too big?”
If I remember correctly, I believe the last time we did this interview I talked about our goal to have 600 students by 2019-2020. We were actually at 601 at one point this last school year - so definitely ahead of the original plan. We’ve been blessed that more and more students and families are choosing Lutheran High. I think we will be in the 660-680 range for the coming fall.
I understand the fears that some have around our growth. Our Board continues to demand that we have processes in place to guard and protect our core values in the face of enrollment growth. One of those core values is “teacher talent,” and I’ve often said that as long as our hiring of great people outpaces our enrollment growth, Lutheran High will still be Lutheran High.
The reality is that whether we have 10 teachers or 50 teachers, they all need to be the type of high character, talented people that we as parents would pay to have our kids around. The people that work at Lutheran High have to be fierce defenders of our highly relational culture, point students to Jesus, and be really good at what they do. We cannot drift from that. Ever.
Earlier this year someone asked me what I really want the Lutheran High School experience to look like. I replied quickly with: I want our students and parents to have a high quality interaction every time they engage with one of our employees. I recognize that as sinful people that won’t always be the case, but it is certainly the goal.
Earlier you mentioned the Board and their critical targets. Can you give an example of that?
Yes - I won’t list all twelve of the targets. In short, a lot of the targets are sustainability pieces: service the debt, increase the donor base, develop timely financial reporting, etc. Other targets are mission-minded, focusing on seeking and saving the lost, and guarding our core values. All of the previously mentioned Greater Impact plans are designed to meet the critical target of “fund the vision to expand the permanent facility to hold over 600 kids.” At the end of each fiscal year, I am evaluated by the Board on how well I do in hitting those targets. Some of them have been the same for years, and others get deleted or added based on the school’s current status or vision of the Board.
Switching topics, can I ask you about school safety and security at Lutheran High School?
You can. I think sometimes people think that because we are a Christian school that we don’t think something could happen here and that we haven’t taken the same or more precautions as other schools do. Nothing is further from the truth. We have a detailed and rehearsed emergency response plan. We have a team of teachers who have responsibilities in the event of an emergency.
Our response procedures (lockdown, lockout, evacuate, etc.) mirror Douglas County’s. Our exterior doors are locked. Parker police are close and make regular appearances on our property. Students and adults have to be “buzzed” in through the second set of doors by the main entrance.
Unfortunately, the recent school shootings demonstrated the disturbing trend of violence from students who seem undeterred by the presence of security. I think this changes the game in terms of how to think of appropriate response since all of the things I listed in the previous paragraph wouldn’t prevent what happened at STEM from happening elsewhere. It shifts the focus to how quickly someone intending to do harm would be engaged, and potentially engaged by someone armed.
In an intruder situation, the short version of our course of action currently is to get locked down, out of sight, and get the police on campus as fast as possible to engage the intruder. We know that response should be under three minutes and what coordination will look like with police when they arrive on scene.
I’ve been asked about Lutheran High School having a school resource officer to possibly decrease that response time. It is interesting that Parker and Douglas County are having meetings as we speak about how to cover schools at all levels, public and private, with resource officers, since so many schools do not have them or share them between campuses. I’ve also been asked about having armed private security, much like STEM had. Obviously, risk to students and others is present as well when private citizens are potentially using a weapon. If we were to choose to go the SRO or armed private security route - I will let our community know with appropriate rationale.
On a quick side note, I do appreciate the conversations I was able to have with many of our parents who, while concerned, were willing to talk things through with me on the phone. I appreciate getting a chance to stress with people how important school culture is in relation to school safety. My prayer is that our highly relational environment, our emphasis on proper procedures and training, a continued focus on student mental health, diligent prayer, and future precautions - that we have the right combo to keep Lutheran High School safe and secure.
On a more positive note - what amazes you most about Lutheran High School?
That’s easy. Our students are unbelievable. They want what we are selling, so to speak. They want to talk about Jesus. They walk around interacting at a deep level with each other and their teachers and coaches. They respond to being pushed, encouraged, scolded (lovingly, of course), and molded. And, they excel! They win state titles, they put on amazing performances, and they absolutely dominate their academics.
We talk about Lutheran High School as a place for students to thrive, and not just survive, and the amount of students that I see that are thriving blows me away. With that being said, I am also continually amazed by their faith and their ability to show God’s love to others. School culture is everything in education, and our students contribute in the right ways to the culture that our adults work hard to maintain.
What’s motivating you these days?
Next year is year 25 for me as a part of Lutheran High School in the Denver metro area. I’ve only ever worked for this organization, first as teacher and coach, then as a principal, now as an Executive Director. I have always had a strong internal drive to see Lutheran High School improve every year. Now, I actually think about Lutheran High School as a home for my own kids in a few years (this is usually when I say “if they get in,” but that makes my wife mad, so I’ll skip it this time). That raises the stakes a little and provides an even bigger sense of urgency for me.
I also am motivated by the opportunity that God has placed in front of us all. We happen to live during a time when parents can choose to send their kids to a school that will partner with them to encourage their academic excellence AND their faith in Jesus. I don’t think we realize how blessed we are to have that option.
We dare not take the Christian worldview that is presented at Lutheran High for granted - what I mean is that I think it’s easy to picture a future time when the secular world will do its best to be rid of the influence of Christian organizations - including schools. God certainly doesn’t need Lutheran High School to expand His kingdom, but I’m certainly grateful that He is choosing to use us right now in Parker. It’s been a fun ride, and every time I think I have a handle on what’s coming next, He amazes all of us with where things land and how much He provides.
Any final thoughts?
I should say that I am thankful for the wonderful financial support that comes from our Lutheran High School family. Almost all private schools are not fully funded through tuition - generous donations are needed just for the operating budget on an annual basis. We aren’t different in that regard and we have been blessed to remain successful with our RRR Fund and our auction. I need that to continue in the future as well.
With such an emphasis on the annual giving, it can seem exhausting to also be focused on the Greater Impact Capital Campaign as well. I appreciate people’s willingness to stretch and consider giving to our campus expansion. I do believe it to be a great opportunity to give for the immediate needs of our current students, but also to build something for future generations of Lutheran High School graduates. I appreciate the willingness of families to give back of their time, talents, and resources. Lutheran High School has always functioned as a family, and we are blessed to have a great one right now.
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