Madison High starts year under new leadership

New principal inherits school undergoing great change

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 3, 2012

 Dan Gilbertson, the new principal at Madison High, has already hired a third of the current staff. One of his goals is to make the school’s restructuring, already under way prior to his arrival, a success.

Dan Gilbertson, the new principal at Madison High, has already hired a third of the current staff. One of his goals is to make the school’s restructuring, already under way prior to his arrival, a success.

Photo by David Schreiber

MADISON HEIGHTS — Dan Gilbertson’s journey as a high school teacher and administrator led him from Michigan to Florida and back. Now he’s the new principal at Madison High, where dramatic change is afoot. He arrives in the middle of a massive restructuring, with enrollment growing and a renewed focus on student achievement.

Gilbertson, his wife and children returned to the Great Lakes State in August. He is, first and foremost, a family man.

“Being away from family is really the reason we came back to Michigan,” said Gilbertson. He noted the sunny weather in Florida is nice, but it made him appreciate Michigan’s variety of seasons. “But it’s more about family,” he laughed.

The previous principal, Christian Morales, served for three years and left to take a position at Laingsburg High, up in Shiawassee County. Gilbertson had been monitoring for openings in secondary administration in Michigan.

“He wanted to come back here,” said Madison Superintendent Randy Speck. “Having had years of experience as an instructor and school leader was an important characteristic we found appealing. He has the ability to lead students as well as teachers, which is something you look for in people who can help take the school forward.”

Gilbertson grew up in Detroit. His family moved to Washington Township in 1977, and he graduated from Romeo High in 1983.

He attended Wayne State University for his bachelor’s degree, group majoring in economics, history and sociology for certification in secondary education. He went on to get a master’s degree in educational leadership from Central Michigan and an education specialist degree with an emphasis in central office and superintendency from Saginaw Valley State. He began taking doctorate classes, but will resume them later.

Gilbertson has 19 years of experience in public education: five years as a high school teacher, first at Reading High and then Algonac High, and 14 years as a secondary administrator, eight of which were in Michigan. 

Now he’s back in his home state, ready to make a difference.

“We’re settling in,” Gilbertson said. “There are a lot of changes that are in place here, from restructuring to moving student achievement upwards, and a very concentrated effort on teaching and learning.”

To try to increase graduation rates, Madison High has been working with academic turnaround consultants from the nonprofit Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE), backed by a charitable gift of $27.1 million from the General Motors Foundation to the United Way of Southeastern Michigan.

The turnaround efforts include new strategies in math to make sure each student has true mastery of a concept before moving on, and a focus on technical reading so that students learn to parse through dense information, a useful skill for college and beyond.

The school has also been split into “small learning communities” and within them, there’s a student and family advocacy system in which a staff member is assigned to every 15-17 students.

Everything is on a block schedule now: core academic classes are twice as long (100 minutes instead of 50) and span a semester instead of a year. This provides more time for in-depth learning and divides student attention among fewer classes each semester.

A districtwide and school-based initiative to increase enrollment has already resulted in at least 55 new students at Madison High. This, coupled with some teachers leaving the district and the demands of the block schedule, necessitated new teachers.

As such, Gilbertson, who had just been hired himself, was soon calling up teacher candidates and arranging job interviews.

“On my first day at 7:30 in the morning, I was getting ready to identify the staff we needed, and proceeded to begin interviewing over the next couple weeks,” Gilbertson said. “We had a very thorough process. I can tell you we hired very qualified teachers, young people who are happy to be here in this position. And the veterans are providing leadership to our younger staff, helping them to make this transition.”

Roughly one-third of the current teaching staff at Madison High consists of new hires. Ongoing training sessions have brought them up to speed on the restructuring efforts, with emphasis on the new standards and strategies for bringing about deeper learning, higher level thinking skills and instructional best practices.

“I’m very excited about the progress we have made already this school year,” Gilbertson said. “I see students that are serious about their education, following our expectations for them, and professional staff members that are truly devoted to making sure they provide a high-quality education to our students.”

It’s heartening, he said, but he also knows the restructuring effort, block scheduling and growing enrollment will continue to be an involving process.

“The culture here is one I feel very good about overall,” Gilbertson said, “but there is still a lot of work to do.”

Madison High School, part of Madison District Public Schools, is located at 915 E. 11 Mile in Madison Heights. For more information, call (248) 548-1800.