Up for the challenge
New superintendent discusses education, her path to Marshfield
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — Superintendent Dee Wells shows no signs of a person adjusting to a new job. Rather, she appears to have hit the ground running, equal to the task of being the CEO of Marshfield’s high performing school district.
Wells’ path to Marshfield started in Medford. She graduated from Medford High School and attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field of communicative disorders.
Eventually, she moved back Medford to raise a family and find a job. She began teaching in the Medford School District, focusing on the areas of speech language pathology and special-education with an emphasis on the early childhood age group.
Wells said her ascension to Medford Superintendent was not necessarily something she was seeking, but as others in the administration retired, she was elevated to the position. Her first experience with administration came when she was offered the job of special education coordinator.
“Quite honestly, I said no (to being the special-education coordinator), and they said, ‘Well, you’re going to be our special-ed coordinator.’ So I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ That was actually my first tiptoe into administration, and then from there, little by little and quite honestly mostly through retirements … I moved into the role of assistant superintendent. And then when the superintendent retired, I applied for the position, and I did become the superintendent in Medford,” Wells said.
In her time as assistant superintendent, Wells also obtained her doctorate in educational leadership from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. She stayed in Medford for three years as superintendent and during that time was accepted to William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minn.
“I thought, ‘Good, I’m going to go to law school.’ I had always thought in the back of my head about law school. … My kids had graduated now from high school by this time, and it just felt good to think about going to law school,” Wells said.
At this same time, a headhunter group found Wells and asked her to apply for a superintendent position in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.
“I said, ‘Why are you calling me?’ I’m superintendent in Medford, Wis. What do I know about being the superintendent of a metro school system?’” Wells said.
Wells interviewed for the superintendent position and was a finalist, but she did not get the job. Simultaneously, a close-by district, Inver Grove Heights in Minnesota, had an opening and was aware that Wells had recently interviewed for a superintendent position. Wells interviewed and was offered the position of superintendent for Inver Grove Heights.
“That district at that time was a district that had sort of gone through a phase, and it was looking for a phase of renewal” Wells said. “And I thought, ‘This could be a fun, fun, fun task to take on.’”
Wells took the position in Inver Grove Heights.
“It was a challenge I couldn’t pass up. It was fun. It was so much fun just to interview there. Law school could wait. I could always go to law school. I could retire and go to law school; that was my thinking,” Wells said.
Wells said that she has sought challenges throughout her career.
“Challenges are also something that inspire us, cause us to think differently, to maybe organize a different concept, pull something together that we never thought could go together before. I really do embrace that kind of a thing,” Wells said.
In her time at Inver Grove Heights, Wells oversaw a school closing, the remodeling of a middle school and elementary school, and the passing of a $24.7 million budget for a new athletic complex, remodeling another school, and building a performing arts center.
With her family mostly settled back in Wisconsin, Wells’ children urged her to apply when the Marshfield superintendent position opened.
“My daughter said when she saw this position open, ‘You will apply. You will do this,’” Wells said with a laugh.
When Wells came for her interview in Marshfield she said she left thinking, “That was fun … but I had been in Minnesota for nine years. So I really didn’t know that they would be interested in someone with different experience now.”
Weeks passed, and Wells thought that someone else must have been chosen for the Marshfield position. Just as she was discussing how she probably did not get the job with a friend, her phone rang, and she was offered the position.
Wells said that all three superintendent positions she has held have been different. One of the things Wells appreciates about Marshfield has been the community’s acceptance that change is a good thing and is necessary to create the best schools possible.
She described her duties as a mix of balancing the day to day tasks with the long range vision of moving the school district in a positive direction.
“I am a long-term vision person. That’s one of those things that comes to me (naturally). I can see a vision, and I can also know how to line everything up to get there,” Wells said.
She added that the key to Marshfield maintaining its status as a high performing school district is having a “quality system that believes in high expectations.”
“The educators, the whole system itself, must have a belief that all students can excel at high levels. Without that belief the students won’t excel at high levels because the system itself won’t react that way,” Wells said.
Wells added that it is important for Marshfield to offer a balanced curriculum. She sees a need to balance Marshfield’s abundance of advanced placement or college level courses with more technical courses that can open opportunities for students to transition directly into the workforce after high school.
Whatever obstacles her new position in Marshfield may present, Wells is sure to relish the challenge.