Forest Hills — Jeff Tolar had a lot to say about Dan Behm’s 17 years as district superintendent.
Tolar, head custodian at Forest Hills Northern High School, talked about the building projects that Behm worked on with the community, spaces that let innovation flourish. He mentioned the joy that students seem to find in project-based high-school programs like Gone Boarding and Project Next.
Tolar was part of the committee that brought Behm to the district back in 2006 and saw how the now soon-to-retire superintendent ”didn’t seem like a traditional candidate.
“I knew he had the knowledge needed, but when I asked him what he liked to do after work, that’s when I knew he was well-rounded,” Tolar recalled.
Behm’s answer? He said he liked to pick up a tool belt and go fix stuff around the house.
That desire to make changes that improve outcomes — to fix stuff — is also a hallmark of Behm’s desire to create conditions for meaningful, well-rounded learning; he led a $130 million bond passed by the community in 2018 to invest, secure and inspire throughout the district.
Board President Kritsten Fauson recalled her first meeting with Behm after she was elected two and a half years ago: “We started by talking about the usual things, but when he mentioned reinventing learning and secondary redesign, his eyes just lit up.”
He has advocated for changes to state-level decisions that he feels cause “ripples of disruption in the system” and rob teachers — the ‘‘most hard-working, creative, innovative people (I’ve) ever seen” — of agency.
From 1993-2006, he worked in Carman-Ainsworth schools, near Flint. For five of those years, he was superintendent in the same district that he himself had attended.
‘His North Star has always been children.’— Mary Vonck, long-time board member
At that time, he wasn’t seeking out a new district but stumbled on the opportunity to serve Forest Hills while searching their website to learn more about, of all things, other ways to structure board minutes. He noticed in those minutes that then-Superintendent Mike Washburn had announced his retirement and that the board was in the process of selecting a search firm to identify possible candidates.
His interest was piqued again. There had been no search firm in Carman-Ainsworth; Behm had been appointed to district leadership roles there twice: first to an assistant superintendent position and then to the superintendent role.
Behm’s curiosity led him to see what a superintendent job application looked like. He began to fill it out, mostly, he said, to understand what the application process was like, but he couldn’t get to the second page without saving the first. So instead of discarding his answers, he continued and submitted the application.
Life was changing in other ways, too. He and his now-wife, Valerie, had just gotten engaged.
The rest, as they say, is history.
No Future in History?
History is where he began his career in education; he taught social studies, history and civics in the district he himself had attended. Before that, though, he worked for a year in the U.S. Senate mailroom.
He said he learned two things by sorting and reading that mail: first, people didn’t have a good sense of civics, and second, the problems in our country that many wrote about seemed to have a common denominator. He believed many of them could be solved through a strong education system. He decided to take his major in history back to school and get his teaching certificate.
So there was a future in history after all.
‘You have students blossoming all over the world.’— Northern Trails students in a tribute to Behm’s work in the district
He began in Carman-Ainsworth as a substitute teacher because jobs were hard to find. When he was asked if he would like to start an alternative high school, he jumped at the chance. True to his belief that relationships are critical, he met with 26 students in their homes, students who had dropped out of school, and asked if they would like to come back.
He learned that each one had all kinds of talents but didn’t like the system or how it made them feel. He and two other educators started a customized high school that the students themselves named; Atlantis still exists today. Behm said that the commencement ceremonies at Atlantis were incredibly moving given the obstacles the students had to overcome.
Systemic Challenges and Solutions
Forest Hills’ board minutes weren’t the only thing that caught Behm’s attention about the district. Finances were tight in Carman-Ainsworth; Behm knew the additional resources Forest Hills had would allow for even more innovation. Remaking the high school experience into a more satisfying experience for students was already a passion and focus for him when he was hired into the role in 2006.
Jon Gregory, director of secondary services and programming in Forest Hills, put a fine point on this: “Dan has always had a vision for moving secondary education from good to great.”
Gregory said Behm supports teachers as they try new ways to help students learn. “His focus has never wavered from trying to do what is best for all kids.”
And “all” means all. Behm has a heart for under-resourced districts and was a lead member of the Kent ISD Secondary Redesign Committee that worked to establish Kent Innovation High School, a place where students from anywhere in the county could learn in an innovative space and in a project-based way.
‘He’s true and he cares deeply.’— Jeff Tolar, Northern High School head custodian
Ron Koehler, Kent ISD superintendent, said Behm “always kept the big picture in mind, sometimes at the expense of highly funded districts like his own, because he knew it would benefit the whole.”
That big picture thinking defines his approach to leading: Behm believes that “superintendents have a lot of formal authority but they do not have a privileged position in understanding a school district. So what you need to do is create relationships with all sorts of people in the system.”
Behm mentioned many groups of people with important perspectives — and, once again, custodians come up, and bus mechanics, too — people who fix things.
Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
Getting to know people comes naturally to Behm, the youngest of four brothers who grew up in the close-knit Carman-Ainsworth community.
“I knew so many staff members as a student, and then I became a colleague as a teacher, and then I became a high school assistant principal. The principal who hired me was my former English teacher. Those were great times. I had all these relationships with all sorts of people.” He mentioned Frank Moore, a custodian at his own elementary school — and a custodian later on, when he was a superintendent.
“Being able to say ‘hi’ to Mr. Moore through the years was a blessing.”
His own experience as a fifth-grader at Carman-Ainsworth’s Randels Elementary influenced his ideas about learning.
“Mr. Anderson transformed my life,” he remembered. “He gave me a sense of the amazing things we were capable of. Going to his classroom every day was a joyful experience.”
A few years back, Behm attended Anderson’s funeral; 149 other former students did too.
‘Dan is thoughtful and principled, and his passion, wit and wisdom will be sorely missed.’— Ron Koehler, Kent ISD superintendent
At his first all-district staff meeting in Forest Hills, Behm put the power of relationships to the test. Technology for the event was glitchy, so Behm decided to just set the clicker down and pull a chair up on stage.
“What I am trying to say is that our work is all about simple connections between human beings,” he told the staff. And he again mentioned custodians: “Adults and kids . . . teachers and parents . . . custodians and superintendents . . . need to see each other as fellow human beings as we begin learning together.”
“Relationships are key to everything we do,” he recalled saying.
Tolar knows this personally. He has experienced tragedy and changes in his family, and he says Behm showed up for him, kept in touch and checked in regularly. After a long pause he added, with emotion punctuating his words, “He’s not a just-for-the-moment guy.”
Sue Gutierrez, principal of Northern Hills 5/6 School, pointed to the two district immersion programs that Behm championed, immersion in both Mandarin and Spanish, as evidence of his desire to help students know and understand each other.
“If graduates are going to land in diverse workplaces, they have to understand diverse people,” she said.
She called Behm a “servant leader” whose curiosity about what the workplace outside of school is like led to many partnerships within the community, to help connect learning today with work tomorrow. She said he values and uplifts teachers and puts students first, whether they are in kindergarten or high school.
Reaching for the Stars
… Or in fifth or sixth grade. Mandarin immersion students at Northern Hills showed their appreciation to Behm as part of an all-district “Farewell Tour,” by presenting a hand-lettered scroll to him and his wife, Val. It reads, “You have students blossoming all over the world,” and was signed “A gift from students at Northern Trails in the summer of 2023, the Year of Rabbit.”
The whole school also celebrated their superintendent with a letter, but, true to form, presented it innovatively: “We are a unique age group and we appreciate the world in our own certain ways. Our letter to you spreads across the 662 lockers representing every student and staff member in our school.” The Behms read the letter word by word and step by step as they took a spin around the school.
‘Dan has always had a vision for moving secondary education from good to great.— Jon Gregory, Forest Hills director of secondary services and programming
The letter thanked him for everything from snow days to teachers, and highlighted his unsung caring and leadership during times of trial. Students put math skills to work and estimated that he had helped launch 15,300 graduates during his time in Forest Hills — and that that number would “rise to the stars” if his previous years in education were figured in.
Students in another school, too, expressed their gratitude to their superintendent in a unique, star-studded way. Robotics and engineering students at Northern Trails decided to use the recycled-material rockets they had spent weeks designing and building to celebrate their superintendent with a skyward “launch into retirement.”
Teacher Dave Vermullen said, “We wanted him to experience some of the amazing things he has helped to support in our classroom throughout his years here.”
“His North Star has always been children,” said Mary Vonck, a board member who has served since the year Behn was hired.
Gratitude and Optimism
It is clear that this curious, relational and transformative leader has left a mark: “He is thoughtful and principled, and his passion, wit and wisdom will be sorely missed,” said Koehler.
Behm anticipates beginning retirement on July 1. The district is in the process of selecting a search firm for the next superintendent.
Behm thinks fresh energy in the district will be a good thing, and said he “feels very optimistic about the future given all of the incredible strengths, talents and gifts of our students.”
‘Relationships are key to everything we do.’— Superintendent Behm in 2006 at his first staff meeting in Forest Hills.
He mentioned his fifth-grade teacher again, a person who ignited his own drive to know and do: “I want to learn more. I want to have the energy level to give 110%.”
He is looking forward to being more present for his family; he has two daughters, seventh-grader Zoe and fifth-grader Carlie, and hopes he and Val, who also has enjoyed a career in a variety of school districts and now owns a home design solutions company, can take road trips to nearby cities and sites for “unstructured learning time” together.
Jeff Tolar also had an idea: He thinks he may have some fix-it jobs in the district that Behm might be able to help with. And that’s not as far-fetched as it may seem.
“I’ve always had a dream to work in a hardware store,” Behm said. “There’s something exciting about identifying a need and offering a response that can be helpful.”
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