If you visit one of the Lakes International Language Academy’s campuses this fall, you still might see Cam Hedlund in a hallway, but the reason he’s there has changed. Over the summer, Hedlund quietly retired from his position as executive director of the Spanish and Chinese immersion charter school, a job he’s had since the school opened in 2004.

“This experience has just totally exceeded my expectations of feeling like I’m making a difference,” he said.

Though Hedlund’s step back from leading the school will ultimately lead to retirement, for now he’s assisting in his transition out by acting as the school’s director of facilities growth and international programs. This role primarily deals with duties he was already performing, including working as the school’s liaison to construction companies during the school’s facilities expansion (due to end early next year) and maintaining positive relationships with international schools and teachers. LILA Director Shannon Peterson is acting as the school’s interim executive director until a permanent replacement is found.

“Right now [the new position is] something I enjoy very much, and it’s something the school is interested in having me help with,” Hedlund said, adding that he has “complete confidence” in Peterson’s leadership.

Beginnings

Hedlund’s career in education dates back to the 1970s. Over the next few decades, he served in a variety of roles, and by the early 2000s, he had become the principal of Lino Lakes Elementary in the Forest Lake Area School District. A group of local parents, including Peterson, approached the district about adding a Spanish language immersion program to the district. The Forest Lake Area School Board considered the idea and asked Hedlund to be on a task force that would study the benefits of starting the program locally. Ultimately, the school board decided not to start such a program right away – Hedlund recalled the district was in a period of budget cuts at the time – but after doing his research, Hedlund had become a huge advocate for its benefits, especially at an early childhood level.

“They become bilingual before they know any better,” he said of language immersion for the young grades.

When the parents who advocated the idea decided they wouldn’t wait for the school board, they began pursuing the charter school option. Knowing Hedlund’s enthusiasm for the concept, they asked him to be the executive director of Lakes International Language Academy. He has no regrets about taking what has been a tough and rewarding job.

“I’m eternally grateful to that first group of parents and those who have followed,” he said.

Early years

In the first year of LILA’s existence, it didn’t fill up the entirety of its old District Memorial Hospital building headquarters on 11th Avenue. There were eight classrooms, 177 students, fewer than 15 staff members and a seemingly endless parade of late nights. The school offered full immersion in the very early grades and hybrid immersion classes up through fourth grade, expanding to fifth and sixth grade the following year.

“That first year, we were a completely unknown entity,” Hedlund said.

The school’s founding board was made up of 12 parents with kids in the school. Hedlund said the school never would have survived if not for the engagement of LILA’s early parents in the process, working hand in hand with teachers and administrators.

“They had incredible skills that they brought to bear upon the school,” Hedlund said of the first crop of board members. “They shared them freely and worked harder than any group I’ve ever worked with.”

Though running a school with such limited staff was hard, no one could argue with parent satisfaction. The next school year, LILA only lost two of its original crop of students, Hedlund said, and those two only left because they moved away. These days, with LILA boasting 1,300 students and operating across three locations, Hedlund recalls with a chuckle an old conversation he and some of the staff had in Year One.

“At about midnight one night, when several of us were still [at work] but things had gone well up to that point, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could fill this building?’” he said.

Growth

Eventually, the original kids in LILA aged out of the grades the school was offering, though Hedlund noted that some of those original parents like Peterson and communications director Tracy Maurer are still around. Many of them moved on to middle school in Forest Lake Area Schools and ultimately went on to study Spanish in college. Hedlund said LILA often heard from FLAS administrators and teachers about the high quality and engagement of ex-LILA students, and he said he and other staff were gratified when they started receiving thank you letters from former students about how LILA had given them an excellent educational foundation.

“It bolstered all of us to know that we were doing something that was meaningful,” he said.

In 2010, the school added Mandarin Chinese as its second immersion language, picking it for its worldwide use and its widespread college support – “The name Lakes International Language Academy did not have a language in its name because we really wanted to offer multiple languages,” Hedlund noted – and in 2015, the school added middle school grades and approved a plan to add high school grades after that. By this time, LILA was a certified International Baccalaureate school and drawing kids from as many as 20 different school districts, and its parents wanted a compelling reason to keep sending their kids there, often from a sizable distance.

Hedlund said the school’s partnership with FLAS to get LILA kids in immersion programs in middle school had been going well, but LILA parents were really interested in continuing the International Baccalaureate certification. When it became clear that FLAS wasn’t going to offer that option, Hedlund said, “Our parents just said, ‘Well, we’ll just pull our students sooner.” Faced with potential student exiles, LILA leadership decided the time was right to expand.

The increase in grades has led to an increase in school space, just two more challenges for a school that started with a skeleton staff and has often operated on a small budget. However, Hedlund said the transition has been executed well, thanks to engaged parents and kids. The school’s first crop of seniors graduated in 2018, a process that Hedlund said required a lot of trust as the school worked out its high school curriculum. The first graduating class of kids who began their education at LILA – what Hedlund described as “homegrown” students – is still a couple of years away.

“We were blessed with kids that were really motivated and their parents were really motivated,” he said of the first couple of senior classes.

Today

Aug. 1 was Hedlund’s last day as executive director.

“I actually [was] going to pull back a little bit earlier … but the bonds that we have used for our growth, those markets really rely on consistency of leadership,” he said. “The school asked me to stay through that process because we’ve used the same bondholders now a couple of different times, and I’m a known entity to them.”

Though he’s still a regular presence in the school, Hedlund feels the differences in his position keenly. LILA’s administration, he said, is not as vast as what a regular public school district would have, which enabled him and board leadership to make decisive choices quickly, with “a two-year study.”

“I felt empowered to make decisions rather quickly when issues arose,” he said. “I would always check with the board chair, with somebody, when it was a big decision. … As much work as that was, it’s also very rewarding.”

Thanks to his expertise in the job, however, he still has nuggets of advice or wisdom to impart, and he believes the school’s leadership is in an excellent place for the future.

“It is a transition to being supportive rather than being directive,” he said.

These days, LILA has about 150 staff and a school board Hedlund said is just as dedicated as the first one 15 years ago. It was one of the first immersion programs in the state back then, but since then, many more have started, including in wealthier school districts around the metro. In a time of greater competition, when other immersion programs have more resources to spread around, Hedlund believes it speaks to the quality of education at LILA that teachers and parents still choose the school for themselves and their children.

“They believe in what we’re doing – that we have a palpable difference in our students.”

If you visit one of the Lakes International Language Academy’s campuses this fall, you still might see Cam Hedlund in a hallway, but the reason he’s there has changed. Over the summer, Hedlund quietly retired from his position as executive director of the Spanish and Chinese immersion charter school, a job he’s had since the school opened in 2004.“This experience has just totally exceeded my expectations of feeling like I’m making a difference,” he said.Though Hedlund’s step back from leading the school will ultimately lead to retirement, for now he’s assisting in his transition out by acting as the school’s director of facilities growth and international programs. This role primarily deals with duties he was already performing, including working as the school’s liaison to construction companies during the school’s facilities expansion (due to end early next year) and maintaining positive relationships with international schools and teachers. LILA Director Shannon Peterson is acting as the school’s interim executive director until a permanent replacement is found.“Right now [the new position is] something I enjoy very much, and it’s something the school is interested in having me help with,” Hedlund said, adding that he has “complete confidence” in Peterson’s leadership.BeginningsHedlund’s career in education dates back to the 1970s. Over the next few decades, he served in a variety of roles, and by the early 2000s, he had become the principal of Lino Lakes Elementary in the Forest Lake Area School District. A group of local parents, including Peterson, approached the district about adding a Spanish language immersion program to the district. The Forest Lake Area School Board considered the idea and asked Hedlund to be on a task force that would study the benefits of starting the program locally. Ultimately, the school board decided not to start such a program right away – Hedlund recalled the district was in a period of budget cuts at the time – but after doing his research, Hedlund had become a huge advocate for its benefits, especially at an early childhood level.“They become bilingual before they know any better,” he said of language immersion for the young grades.When the parents who advocated the idea decided they wouldn’t wait for the school board, they began pursuing the charter school option. Knowing Hedlund’s enthusiasm for the concept, they asked him to be the executive director of Lakes International Language Academy. He has no regrets about taking what has been a tough and rewarding job.“I’m eternally grateful to that first group of parents and those who have followed,” he said.Early yearsIn the first year of LILA’s existence, it didn’t fill up the entirety of its old District Memorial Hospital building headquarters on 11th Avenue. There were eight classrooms, 177 students, fewer than 15 staff members and a seemingly endless parade of late nights. The school offered full immersion in the very early grades and hybrid immersion classes up through fourth grade, expanding to fifth and sixth grade the following year.“That first year, we were a completely unknown entity,” Hedlund said.The school’s founding board was made up of 12 parents with kids in the school. Hedlund said the school never would have survived if not for the engagement of LILA’s early parents in the process, working hand in hand with teachers and administrators.“They had incredible skills that they brought to bear upon the school,” Hedlund said of the first crop of board members. “They shared them freely and worked harder than any group I’ve ever worked with.”Though running a school with such limited staff was hard, no one could argue with parent satisfaction. The next school year, LILA only lost two of its original crop of students, Hedlund said, and those two only left because they moved away. These days, with LILA boasting 1,300 students and operating across three locations, Hedlund recalls with a chuckle an old conversation he and some of the staff had in Year One.“At about midnight one night, when several of us were still [at work] but things had gone well up to that point, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could fill this building?’” he said.GrowthEventually, the original kids in LILA aged out of the grades the school was offering, though Hedlund noted that some of those original parents like Peterson and communications director Tracy Maurer are still around. Many of them moved on to middle school in Forest Lake Area Schools and ultimately went on to study Spanish in college. Hedlund said LILA often heard from FLAS administrators and teachers about the high quality and engagement of ex-LILA students, and he said he and other staff were gratified when they started receiving thank you letters from former students about how LILA had given them an excellent educational foundation.“It bolstered all of us to know that we were doing something that was meaningful,” he said.In 2010, the school added Mandarin Chinese as its second immersion language, picking it for its worldwide use and its widespread college support – “The name Lakes International Language Academy did not have a language in its name because we really wanted to offer multiple languages,” Hedlund noted – and in 2015, the school added middle school grades and approved a plan to add high school grades after that. By this time, LILA was a certified International Baccalaureate school and drawing kids from as many as 20 different school districts, and its parents wanted a compelling reason to keep sending their kids there, often from a sizable distance. Hedlund said the school’s partnership with FLAS to get LILA kids in immersion programs in middle school had been going well, but LILA parents were really interested in continuing the International Baccalaureate certification. When it became clear that FLAS wasn’t going to offer that option, Hedlund said, “Our parents just said, ‘Well, we’ll just pull our students sooner.” Faced with potential student exiles, LILA leadership decided the time was right to expand.The increase in grades has led to an increase in school space, just two more challenges for a school that started with a skeleton staff and has often operated on a small budget. However, Hedlund said the transition has been executed well, thanks to engaged parents and kids. The school’s first crop of seniors graduated in 2018, a process that Hedlund said required a lot of trust as the school worked out its high school curriculum. The first graduating class of kids who began their education at LILA – what Hedlund described as “homegrown” students – is still a couple of years away.“We were blessed with kids that were really motivated and their parents were really motivated,” he said of the first couple of senior classes.TodayAug. 1 was Hedlund’s last day as executive director. “I actually [was] going to pull back a little bit earlier … but the bonds that we have used for our growth, those markets really rely on consistency of leadership,” he said. “The school asked me to stay through that process because we’ve used the same bondholders now a couple of different times, and I’m a known entity to them.”Though he’s still a regular presence in the school, Hedlund feels the differences in his position keenly. LILA’s administration, he said, is not as vast as what a regular public school district would have, which enabled him and board leadership to make decisive choices quickly, with “a two-year study.”“I felt empowered to make decisions rather quickly when issues arose,” he said. “I would always check with the board chair, with somebody, when it was a big decision. … As much work as that was, it’s also very rewarding.”Thanks to his expertise in the job, however, he still has nuggets of advice or wisdom to impart, and he believes the school’s leadership is in an excellent place for the future.“It is a transition to being supportive rather than being directive,” he said.These days, LILA has about 150 staff and a school board Hedlund said is just as dedicated as the first one 15 years ago. It was one of the first immersion programs in the state back then, but since then, many more have started, including in wealthier school districts around the metro. In a time of greater competition, when other immersion programs have more resources to spread around, Hedlund believes it speaks to the quality of education at LILA that teachers and parents still choose the school for themselves and their children.“They believe in what we’re doing – that we have a palpable difference in our students.”

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