Superintendent Dan Takens remembers details about people: events and accomplishments in their lives; their children’s names and extracurriculars. The things that make someone unique.
“I’m a people person. It’s the wind beneath my wings, if you will,” said Takens of his joy in connecting with others.
The personal touch Takens brings to the job of superintendent goes well beyond pleasantries, staff members say. It’s had a transformative effect on the district over the past 11 years, a time when enrollment has burgeoned by more than 1,000 students and achievement has soared.
“Dan’s impact on this district will last far longer than most of us. He makes us feel like we are home. Dan has an incredible talent to remember small things about each person he meets,” said Stephanie Boyce, director of the district’s Room to Bloom childcare program. “With that gift, he makes people feel special and appreciated, and that we belong.”
Takens, who is retiring Dec. 31, said a key part of leadership is valuing staff, parents and students as individuals. Small positive things can lead to big successes, he said.
“I know that’s the case and I believe in that,” he said. “The best advice I got when I became superintendent was, ‘Dan, spend a year focusing on establishing relationships with the kids and parents.’”
In his youth, he said, he was most inspired by the teachers, principals and coaches who took time to get to know him on a personal level. “I thought, ‘these leaders really do care about me as a person.’ Intrinsically, that would make me want to work harder and be even more devoted.”
Positive Upward Momentum
Under Takens’ leadership, Byron Center Public Schools has become one of the state’s top-performing districts, touting numerous achievements in academics, arts and athletics. All three elementary schools, Brown, Marshall and Countryside, have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as National Blue Ribbon schools, a title that puts them among the nation’s highest in academics.
“It starts with a belief that all means all,” Takens said. “All children are more than capable of being good readers and writers, good critical thinkers, good citizens. They know we believe that. How do they know that? It goes back to the relationship piece.”
District principals further explain that belief — now embedded districtwide. “Dan has modeled a student-focused philosophy that has carried through to principals, teachers, and support staff,” said Nickels Intermediate Principal Tom Trout. “On a personal level, Dan connects with people in a way that makes them feel valued and appreciated.”
Added Brown Elementary School Principal Jack Gitler, “As superintendent, Mr. Dan Takens made it a priority to put students first at all times. His successes as an educational leader came because he cared for every child like they were his own and wanted to see success in them all.”
And from Byron Center High School Principal Scott Joseph: “The impact that Dan Takens has had on our district is truly immense. When I entered the district in 2009, there were many areas in our district where people weren’t trusting each other or working together well. Our sense of collaboration as a team was broken for various cultural reasons.
“Dan helped to lead the charge where our staff could work together and put students first. Through the years, we have watched our students build success stories in so many different ways, and the opportunities so many students have had is due to a team of educators working together under Dan’s leadership.”
Takens branded the “4 Rs” in instruction districtwide: Education must be relevant and rigorous. Relationships are key, and taking time for reflection matters.
“It needs to be more than test scores,” he said. “We just wanted our kids to reach their potential — mind, body and soul.”
‘We are BC’
Takens has also regularly drummed up community support by connecting with parents, stakeholders and business leaders to facilitate a $68.5 million bond passed by voters in 2017. That included a $40 million high school expansion to make room for 1,600 more students in the approximately 4,150 student district.
He and the Board of Education have regularly included the community at large in efforts to build the district, most recently in the process of hiring a new superintendent. (Current Assistant Superintendent Kevin Macina will begin in the post Jan. 1.)
“I always say ‘we are BC,’” Takens said. “We are a BC family, and that really goes a long way toward creating a personal and intimate relationship in this community.”
Takens was also one of School News Network’s first advisory superintendents, helping bring the district’s news to the community.
Always a Teacher at Heart
Takens, of Byron Center, grew up in the Alger Heights neighborhood of Grand Rapids. He graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School, and with education degrees from Calvin College. He began his career in Kentwood Public Schools 32 years ago, where he was a teacher, assistant principal and principal. He also coached cross-country, basketball and track at the middle and high school level. In 2004, he became the first principal of Countryside Elementary, and has led the district as superintendent since September 2008.
Takens announced his retirement in August. He will join Exalta Health as president in February, working to serve the uninsured and underserved with faith-centered medical care. He also plans to take care of his own “mind, body and soul,” he said.
“It starts with a belief that all means all. All children are more than capable of being good readers and writers, good critical thinkers, good citizens. They know we believe that. How do they know that? It goes back to the relationship piece.”— Dan Takens, retiring superintendent
A fan of trifectas, he also prioritizes “faith, family and friends.” That includes wife, Kristi Takens, a counselor at Marshall Elementary; and children, Elizabeth, 25; Kennedy, 24; Mason, 20; and grandchildren.
His daughter, Hannah, died in 2007 at age 15. The loss of a child — Hannah died in a car accident — is the hardest thing a person can go through, he said.
“It put things in perspective,” he said. “Life is precious. Forgive and extend grace freely. It’s not worth getting caught up in little things and letting differences strain relationships.”
While talking about his retirement, Takens had three books on hand that he said are near and dear to his heart. One, titled “A Day in the Life of Mr. Takens,” was written by Countryside students in 2006. Another is “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss, and the third is “The Three Questions,” a children’s book based on a story by Leo Tolstoy.
The books present themes about big goals and living in the moment, but they also contain cherished messages from friends, photographs with students, well wishes and sage advice.
They represent just an iota of three decades of a career spent in education, and of course, illustrate what matters most to Takens: the people.
Boyce knows serving others is what Takens is all about. “Through the touch he has on the community, the schools have become a strong family and a major influence on the community.
“We are blessed to have worked with him.”