Born and raised in Madison, Leslie Bergstrom hasn’t had to travel far to live out her dreams as an educator.
The Madison East High School alumni was hired by her alma mater right after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching social studies in her hometown for 11 years before heading south to Oregon in 2003. She’s been here ever since, working through a variety of roles before landing the top spot on July 1 as district superintendent, succeeding Brian Busler, who retired in June.
“I love the fact that every new job I take on, I learn so much, and grow so much as a professional and a person,” Bergstrom told the Observer last month. “I feel very grateful that I have been able to stay here near the rest of my family … and the connection I have to Dane County in general.”
Bergstrom was the first in her immediate family to go to college, and she said while that part was expected, she didn’t know exactly what career path to take once she got there. She said eventually the feeling just hit to get into education.
“I really feel that sometimes when you are a teacher, you just are a teacher,” she said. “It’s just a part of who you are, and how you proceed in the world — it all centers on education and being an educator.”
As she looks back, Bergstrom said her teachers were all a positive, memorable part of her life.
“I can start in kindergarten and work all the way up through the grades and I’d be able to talk about some influential aspects of each one of them,” she said. “They just gave you the warmest heart for educators and education, so by the time I was in college and I was making choices, I really think it was all of those really special people who led me to where I am.”
Bergstrom said it was a “marvelous experience” to be able to start her teaching career in her old high school, just a few years after graduating herself.
“(It’s) not just because I loved social studies — which I absolutely do — but because of the humor and insight (of) older students,” she said.
Bergstrom was also the school’s student activity adviser, which got her started in another leadership role.
“Basically everything co-curricular they did other than athletics, I had some connection to it,” she said. “That allowed me to really get to know students and develop the positive relationships that really makes learning so much deeper and richer ... that can really help you understand the person, in addition to the student.”
Bergstrom spent a year as assistant principal at Madison’s Cherokee Middle School, while also taking classes to complete her Masters’ degree at UW-Madison. On her last day of class there in spring 2003, she saw a notice on a job bulletin about an assistant principal job at Oregon High School. She called her mentor Milt McPike, long-time East High School principal, and he encouraged her to apply.
“He said that is a fantastic opportunity and I needed to go for it,” Bergstrom recalled.
A new home in Oregon
Bergstrom spent several years at OHS before then-superintendent Brian Busler approached her about an opening for a new principal at Rome Corners, the district’s grades 5-6 intermediate school.
“He said, ‘I think you’d be really good at this, and I’d like you to consider it,’ and it didn’t take me very long,” she said. “It sounded like an amazing opportunity to be able to support teachers in all of the school, and when you’re supporting teachers, you’re improving learning for kids.”
After five years at RCI, Bergstrom was named district director of learning and student achievement, increasing her work with district-wide curriculum, and held that position until she was promoted to deputy superintendent in March 2018. With the new title, she and Busler were able to begin a gradual transition that continued through his retirement this June.
“I would gradually assume some administrative-related responsibility while he was still here so he could support me with any questions I had,” Bergstrom said. “By the time he was able to actually retire, he and I had made a very, very smooth transition, as I had been assuming portions of decisions related to the superintendent for a while.”
Busler called Bergstrom a “superstar” who knows how to engage parents, community members, staff and students.
“When I met her as an associate principal, I remember joking with her, ‘Oh someday, you’re going to be a superintendent,’ and she just smiled,” Busler told the Observer in June. “She will be an amazing leader for the Oregon School District for years to come.”
Bergstrom, in turn, credited Busler for putting together a staff over the past few years that has been critical to helping her guide the district through the COVID-19 pandemic and all its effects.
“We’re all working very hard, we know what’s important and we are all on the same page philosophically,” she said. “A collaborative district is built over time and with intention. Through focus and intention, we can create a more equitable, inclusive school district.
“We will not lose our focus during challenging times.”
Leading in troubled times
Amidst the chaotic environment of the spring schools shutdown and current reopening concerns, Bergstrom isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Whoever would have thought the beginning of this position would be to lead a school district though a global health crisis?” she said.
Still, Bergstrom said she’s glad to take the lead, as she’s more familiar with the district and its staff than anyone, given her tenure and responsibilities over the years.
“In many respects, this is a time of crisis, and it’s made it much smoother than it could have been if it hadn’t been someone who already knew and loved the district,” she said. “I knew many families already, and of course I had a good relationship with the teachers.”
With the school year set to begin, Bergstrom credited district staff for putting in many hours of preparation and training to start the virtual year in the best possible way.
“They have done absolutely everything anyone could have asked of them and more,” she said. “Everybody has to operate at their maximum capacity right now, because there is no other way you can in this situation.”
Bergstrom also credited students and families for their understanding as district officials try to make the best decisions they can for everyone.
“Even when people have not agreed with my decision to start off the year virtually, they have sent kind emails,” she said. “I’m just so impressed by that, because I know that isn’t the case everywhere.
“When all is said and done; when we’re all back in school again and the health crisis has waned, I think our culture will be even stronger because we worked together well during this time.”