Of all the roles he’s played in his educational career, Dave Means found his love for the field behind the wheel.
While studying at the University of Montana decades ago, Means also drove school buses, and the interactions with students sold him on education.
“I enjoyed working with the kids, I remember kids talking to me, telling me about their day, and it was just neat to create relationships with kids,” he said.
Means has served as the Director of Educational Services at the Whitefish School District for 14 years and in March is set to receive the CSPD Leadership Award for Region V in Montana.
The award recognizes leaders who have positively impacted the lives of paraeducators and students. Means will receive the award at the Montana Council for Exceptional Children Conference in Missoula on March 1. Means was nominated for the award by Whitefish Schools paraeducators Eden Dias, Malinda Goldhirsch, and Donna Sproul, along with Muldown Elementary School Principal Linda Whitright and teacher Gail Leonard.
Dias, in her nomination letter, wrote that Means makes a difference in the lives of all his employees.
“He is approachable, always open to suggestion, and takes the time to meet with us and listen to our concerns,” she wrote. “We feel like he is our champion and ‘has our back’ which makes us feel supported and cared for.”
Whitright wrote that Means takes respect and empathy “to the next level.”
“It is Dave’s ability to approach situations without blame, with a keen understanding of the emotions at play, and with a deep degree of empathy for all that spread respect throughout our school. It’s ingrained into his personality, and it becomes pervasive,” Whitright wrote.
Originally from Missoula, Means worked in Bozeman and Kodiak, Alaska, prior to coming to Whitefish.
As Whitefish’s Director of Educational Services, Means realizes he wears a lot of hats.
Among other things, his responsibilities include supervising the special education programs and the roughly 50 employees working in them, overseeing section 504 plans for students with disabilities, supporting human resources in the hiring processes, working on homelessness and mental health services and facilitating counseling agreements with North Valley Hospital.
His most important — and favorite — of those roles is supporting paraeducators.
“The foundation of the award is really about leadership for paraeducators, and those are the people that are really the unsung heroes in education. Here, I get to walk around and see them working with kids every day,” he said. “I think we do a really great job of [providing educational services], I think because we have really outstanding staff that really care about the kids. That culture of problem solving — staff are always seeking the best way support a child.”
Means said the job has changed since he first took up the same position in Alaska.
One of the biggest changes, and one he’s pleased with, is the development of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Whitefish and Bozeman school districts are the only districts in the state to implement MTSS across all their schools.
“What it does is it breaks down those barriers between special education and all these specific programs and really looks at the whole picture and the whole child and asks, ‘What does this child need and how can we get them the support they need?’” he said.
“That’s allowed us to look at data from multiple sources, problem solve with that data and information and then determine, ‘OK, there’s some students with needs here, how are they going to get helped?’ Which is a big change, because before it was waiting — they used to call the old model the ‘Wait to Fail’ model. Now we’re trying to be very proactive.”
Another change he hopes to see in the future is a standardization of mental and behavioral health education, he said. Right now the school provides these, teaching about mental health and coping in health class or bringing counselors into the classroom to work with students, but a larger, more consistent framework for that is the next step, Means said.
When asked about the most challenging part of his job, Means paused to think.
The challenges are understanding each student’s unique needs, he said, and that challenge is actually the fun part.
“I think that’s what’s enjoyable about the position, really, is that there are challenges and we’re trying to solve ways to support kids better all the time,” he said. “If there’s a student that needs assistance, I truly enjoy that process — the challenge of coming together and trying to figure out, as a team, how we’re provide the best support to this kid.”
During a school board meeting, Board Chair Nick Polumbus said he’s only heard good things about Means.
“I’ve heard over and over again, how lucky we are to have you, Dave, and how recognized you are across the state. So this is just well deserved and I’m sure past due,” he said.