Albert Lea activities director begins work on culture change for district sports

Published 7:49 pm Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Albert Lea Area Schools activities director is hoping to reach beyond the school to build a more positive culture surrounding the district’s activities departments and programs.

Paul Durbahn

Paul Durbahn said when he interviewed for the role as activities director, which he took over last month after serving for a short time as interim AD, he tried to articulate what he felt the district needed: a culture change.

“What we’ve kind of felt is that there’s, one, a small disconnect between our youth club sports and our high school sports,” Durbahn said. “… There’s also kind of a negative culture that’s been building in Albert Lea built around the lack of successes in some programs, and it’s just a reality we’re facing right now.”

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He said any negative culture is not attributed to one person or program, but there needs to be leadership that points district programs in the direction of success.

To address a disconnect between youth club and high school sports, Durbahn presented to the school board Monday the idea of a community activities summit. It is intended for anyone involved with Albert Lea activities, Durbahn said, including anyone interested in coaching at any level and those involved in booster clubs, Community Education and Parks and Recreation. He said relationships with these groups and people are important for the success of high school activities.

“We want everybody together, one large setting, and so that’s what we’re talking about,” Durbahn said. “Albert Lea activities community-wide — that’s what we’re looking to try to get together and on the same page.”

This summit is an effort toward vertical alignment — reaching out to different levels of activities and programs and working toward building relationships and a more positive culture.

A positive culture, Durbahn said to the board, does not mean winning does not matter. Children participate in activities and play in sports because they want to be successful. And before inviting the community into the conversation, Durbahn said the district needs to work on furthering its horizontal alignment and identifying the purpose of why coaches do their jobs. Moving forward, he hopes the coaches can identify three to five pillars of non-negotiables that will guarantee a winning culture in Albert Lea, he said. After coaches are on the same page, Durbahn said he plans to bring student leaders on board.

For school board member Neal Skaar, that purpose is not to create winning teams, but to teach student athletes how to be winners and what it takes to become a champion in the classroom and outside of it.

“We are providing students with machinery so that they can be successful in whatever they do,” Skaar said.

Prior work with horizontal alignment involved last year’s InsideOut, a Why We Play initiative in partnership with the Minnesota State High School League intended to focus students and coaches more on the purpose of activities as education.

During his time as interim activities director, Durbahn said he got a sense of some programs that have successfully undergone culture changes. And while InsideOut is a curriculum option, Durbahn said, the initiative has phased into more of a purpose-based coaching initiative. He is getting quotes for other curriculum, as he said he would prefer to supplement InsideOut with a curriculum geared specifically toward leadership and culture change in an activities department.

He is also hoping to use a Zimmerman-based football coach as a resource who has worked to turn the culture around in the Zimmerman community. The idea to host a summit came from Hastings High School.

“We’re not recreating the wheel,” Durbahn said. “We’re learning from others that have been through this and are successful as well.”

School board member Dave Klatt said he liked seeing more interest taken in assistant coaches, while member Kim Nelson liked that Durbahn’s proposed summit involved a partnership piece with boosters. While she sees some strong boosters in the community, others activities are missing that component. She said she does not see strong boosters and strong programs as a coincidence, specifically citing Albert Lea’s music and robotics programs.

“Your vision is so exciting,” she said.

But school board chairman Ken Peteresen asked Durbahn to remain aware that part of the discussion surrounding last May’s referendum involved a conversation about adding junior high sports back into the district as gym space expanded at Halverson. He told Durbahn youth sports are a high priority for the board.

Youth sports were removed from the district in 2011 due to gym space issues and programming overlap between district and community sports, Superintendent Mike Funk said.

Nelson was on the board at the time it made that decision, she said, and rather than see the community and school come together to find a solution to competing programs, the school made a decision to stop offering.

This is why Nelson said she sees the summit as so important: because it can help the community work through conversations like the one she hoped would have happened then.

Durbahn said he understands the value of junior high sports. He said he has recently begun to look into the programs of other schools that provide middle school sports.

School board member Angie Hanson asked Durbahn to return to the school board following the summit — potentially to occur in the fall — for another discussion about middle school athletics.

“I know the community’s really wanting middle school and junior high sports,” Hanson said.

Durbahn said the summit, or a look into the culture of activities in the district, was not sparked by disappointment in others’ ability to succeed.

“This is just what a Albert Lea community needs and what’s best for our student athletes,” he said.


About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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