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'Undercover Boss': District 833 superintendent job-shadows school workers

Oltman Middle School students Jaidan Ludescher (left) and Gianna Epich watch as Superintendent Keith Jacobus rolls a dice during the students’ earth science lesson. Jacobus visited Oltman teacher Callie Chenault’s class as part of his Undercover Boss project. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente) 1 / 5
Superintendent Keith Jacobus asks a question of Oltman Middle School teacher Callie Chenault when he job-shadowed her recently. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente) 2 / 5
During some down time in class, Superintendent Keith Jacobus talks to an Oltman Middle School student about his participation in orchestra and band. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente) 3 / 5
Superintendent Keith Jacobus interviews Callie Chenault after observing -- and participating -- in her classroom at Oltman Middle School. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente) 4 / 5
Superintendent Keith Jacobus works with Woodbury Elementary School custodian foreman Morris Carson during his Undercover Boss project. (Photo courtesy of School District 833)5 / 5

Much like the water they were studying, the eighth-graders flowed from one area of the science lab to another.

The day’s lesson was the water cycle, and students were learning how water changes state and moves among glaciers, rivers, land, lakes and animals. They rolled special dice to direct them to different stations in the lab.

What made this recent lesson in Callie Chenault’s earth science class at Oltman Middle School unusual was the classroom guest: Superintendent Keith Jacobus. South Washington County Schools’ top administrator delved right in, rolling dice and moving around the room with the students. He’d ask them about their interests and banter as the lab progressed.

“We could be here for millions of years,” Jacobus joked at one point to students who, like him, were stuck for a few rounds at the glacier station.

Jacobus has been moving around the district himself this spring for a project dubbed Undercover Boss. For the past few months he’s been tagging along with district employees, meeting them and learning about their jobs on various front lines of the school system. Jacobus was in Chenault’s classroom earlier this month and this week concluded the Undercover Boss series by shadowing Carol Tobin, the district’s Key Club coordinator.

In his second year as superintendent, Jacobus said it’s important all employees understand he appreciates their work.

“As a superintendent, you get removed from the day-to-day activities,” he said. “There’s a value aspect to making sure that every employee group knows how much I value them.”

All district employees play a role in helping students thrive, Jacobus said — the bus driver who sets the tone when greeting a child in the morning; a cook who serves students their meals; the custodian who keeps a school clean.

Buses to boiler rooms

Jacobus’ seven Undercover Boss stops have taken him from classrooms to lunchrooms, buses to boiler rooms. The employees he followed included: Chenault; Peggy Reagan, an administrative assistant for the district’s school readiness program; Oltman Middle School cook Paula Robertson; Bev Anderson, a paraprofessional  who works with English language learners at Cottage Grove Elementary School; Neal Heurung, a bus driver; Morris Carson, a custodian foreman at Woodbury Elementary School; and Tobin.

In some cases the employees are told ahead of time that Jacobus would like to join them for a couple of hours. Other times, it’s a surprise.

Carson was ready and waiting recently when Jacobus showed up to join him on his morning tasks.

“First of all, he was late,” Carson joked later. He starts his day at 6:30 a.m. Jacobus’ visit began at 7 a.m.

It wasn’t just a morning of observation. Carson put Jacobus to work. They cleaned floors, emptied trash, filled a milk cooler and did maintenance checks on the school’s boiler.

Carson also had Jacobus hop on a floor scrubber to spiff up the gymnasium floor.

“That was real cool,” Carson said of Jacobus’ willingness to participate. “The guy catches on real quick. He rode it just like I would have rode it.”

Carson said it was the first time he had spent any time with Jacobus, and he appreciated that the superintendent showed interest in his work.

“When we worked together, it was real nice,” Carson said.

Anderson, the Cottage Grove Elementary paraprofessional, said she was nervous before Jacobus’ visit, but she found it to be a positive experience and a good opportunity to show the superintendent how she helps students.

“I actually think it’s nice that he does come in and see what people are doing,” she said.

Understanding their work

Jacobus finished each visit by interviewing the employee on camera for a video wrap-up of each Undercover Boss stop. At the recent Oltman visit, he asked Chenault how she got into teaching and what she likes about it.

“Every day there’s something new happening,” Chenault said. She also enjoys linking science to other curriculum areas.

The subject matter can be a challenge, she admitted.

“Earth science is unfortunately one of the harder things for them to get excited about,” she said. But Chenault said she tries to find ways to engage students in the topics. For instance, one of their recent assignments was to go outside and document their own weather observations.

Video highlights of the Undercover Boss stops are on the district’s website at

Jacobus said he would like to do something similar again next year.

“It’s a great way for me to get to know people,” he said, “and also to really understand their work.”

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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