Student success is new Denfeld High School principal's top priority

"I've worked here for 25 of my 26 years in education, and I'm aware of what our challenges are, but I'm also aware that our strength in the solutions to those challenges comes from within our student body and our staff and our greater community," Tom Tusken said.

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New principal Tom Tusken poses for a portrait on the roof of Denfeld High School with the famed clocktower behind him Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Tyler Schank /

The Duluth Public Schools announced Tuesday that Tom Tusken would be the next principal of Denfeld High School. Tusken has served in his current position as assistant principal for two years and is a Denfeld graduate himself. He will be the fourth alumnus to lead the school.

The News Tribune sat down with Tusken via Google Meet to talk about his new role. The questions are listed in bold, followed by his answers.

Why did you want to apply for this job?

I'm a graduate. I was a long-time staff member here. I live in the Denfeld neighborhood. I actually live about half a block from here. My kids have all gone to the western schools, Stowe Elementary School, Lincoln Park and Denfeld. I had one kid graduate from Denfeld. I have another one that's graduating this year, of all years, and I have a seventh grader at Lincoln Park.

So really, I'm super heavily invested in this community, and I don't look at it as a job or career. I've often told people whether it was in the classroom as an administrator, this is really more of a lifestyle, not only for me but for my family, so I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to make a positive impact for the kids that go to school here.

What are you most excited about taking on this challenge?

What I'm most excited about taking on this new challenge really the one thing I can't get away from, and nor should I ever get away from, is the graduation rate. It's the ultimate measuring stick really for a school, whether that's fair or not. It's so important that it has to be my No. 1 priority, so that's what I'm most excited about.


Do you have ideas on how to tackle the graduation rate? That’s a pretty big priority.

We have some things that we already have in place that I'd like to see improved. For example, our professional learning communities really need to be data-driven to identify kids in the classroom, in real time, and then looking for ways to provide interventions.

I think some of the challenges are we need to find a way to improve those interventions so they're more effective and efficient. I think at Denfeld transportation is an issue. So, it is much, much more effective to try to work with our kids during the day.

I certainly look at trying to build more relationships and communication with some of our populations that have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised. When it comes to graduation rates of Native Americans, African Americans, special education students and those students receiving free and reduced lunch we have a ways to go.

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After serving as assistant principal at Denfeld High School for two years, it was announced Tuesday that Tom Tusken would be the next principal. (Tyler Schank /

Do you think being an alumnus gives you a leg up?

I think it absolutely gives me a leg up because I think what it really comes down to for a lot of people is they know you and they trust you. I think sometimes if you're an unknown commodity coming into a position it takes a long time to create that relationship and create that trust.

I think, as an alumnus, I already have a lot of relationships with former classmates, former graduates, current students that I've had in the classroom as recently as a couple of years ago. I know many of the staff and they know me very well so I think the trust is there and when you have trust you're willing to have harder conversations.

Some people see Denfeld as a lesser school in the area for many reasons. Do you think it’s something that needs to be tackled and how would change that perception?

I don't view Denfeld as a lesser school but it certainly provides the motivation and fire I think for our kids and our staff, and even our graduates and our alumni to show people what we can do. I think it's great motivation because it provides fuel. I also think when we play the underdog, it helps us become resilient. It helps us become persistent.


I have had countless conversations with countless students over the years, and I've told them, I said if you think it's going to become that much easier when you turn 18 and magically become an adult, you're going to have a long learning curve. So I think our underdog role and our view you know that people view us as lesser helps us become better adults.

If you think you have to fight for things you're going to fight for things your whole life.

After graduation rates, what is your second priority?

I think when you talk about Denfeld, we often talk about equity work. But when I see equity, not only do I see an equity challenge within the system, but I see an equity issue within our own school. I see very different experiences for different groups of kids.

I would say a secondary priority that will help us accomplish graduation improvement is really dealing with the equity of the experience issue that we have within this school so that kids have more common, filling experience across the board regardless of what their background is.

Do you have anything else to add about taking on this position?

I've worked here for 25 of my 26 years in education, and I'm aware of what our challenges are, but I'm also aware that our strength in the solutions to those challenges comes from within our student body and our staff and our greater community.

I'm very realistic about what we need to do and the challenges that are going to face us, but I know that we will overcome them together because Denfeld is definitely a very family-oriented environment.

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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