The new superintendent for Provo schools might surprise you with her plans for embracing diversity

Wendy Dau will start in the job on Aug. 16. Her goals, among many, are to create an inclusive culture and communicate more often with students and parents.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wendy Dau, Provo School District's new superintendent, pictured on Wednesday, August 9, 2023.

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Wendy Dau said she isn’t afraid of words like inclusion, equity and diversity — and she doesn’t want other educators to be either.

“Right now, in our political climate, we kind of shy away from those words, that vocabulary,” Dau said.

But those terms are at the heart of everything schools do when they are at their best, said the new superintendent for Provo City School District.

“I think everyone should be able to get behind that all students should enjoy and love coming to school, should feel very included and safe, should feel seen and their experiences validated, whatever they might be,” she added.

The mindset is what attracted her to Provo schools in the first place. The district is one of the only in the state with a strong equity and inclusion statement. And she hopes to build on that for years to come.

Dau officially begins her duties as superintendent once school begins Aug. 16, sharing a first day with the 13,000 students she’ll oversee in the job.

“[Provo is] a smaller district,” Dau said. “And, so, having been on a cabinet in a very large district, you recognize that your impact is somewhat minimal, and it’s very removed from the classroom. But in this in this district, when you only have two high schools and two middle schools, it’s a lot easier to feel that impact.”

She was appointed by Provo School District’s board of education in May. Dau succeeds Keith Rittel, who served in the position since June 2012 before retiring.

Dau grew up in Bountiful and attended Brigham Young University, where she majored in history and English teaching. She has two graduate degrees from the University of Utah.

She started her career at Davis School District, where she taught for 17 years. In 2013, she became an assistant principal at Jordan High School in Sandy at the south end of Salt Lake County. Over the next eight years, she served in various leadership roles within the Canyons School District, before accepting her most recent position as director of federal and state programs for the district.

Dau said in recent years Provo School District has seen an uptick in its diversity, particularly in the number of students experiencing homelessness and multilingual speakers. It might not be what the average person thinks of for Utah County, which has historically been predominantly wealthy and white.

“We are seeing greater poverty levels, greater housing challenges, an increase in students who may not be homeless per se, but are what we would call ‘experiencing homelessness,’ where their housing isn’t stable,” Dau said.

As the daughter of immigrants from Denmark, Dau said she embraces diversity and different backgrounds. And she wants those identities to be celebrated.

“We have to meet students where they are,” she said. “Whether it’s that they’re gifted, whether it’s their multilingual, which I also see as a huge asset. I don’t ever want our students who speak more than one language to feel that that is a problem. That has to be seen as, ‘This is awesome.’”

Dau said she recognizes that schools have lately become a political battlefield, particularly around diversity and inclusion. That includes banning books about the minority experience, challenging any discussion of race in the classroom or even Utah’s own elected officials claiming that schools are “complicit in the grooming of children for sex trafficking.” Dau said her priority is the students, making sure each kid feels accepted and safe.

In the broadest strokes, that’s what equity means to her. No matter what a student’s experience, she said, they should be able to come to school as they are and have the same access to a quality education.

“All we need to do is often sit down in the same room and have face-to-face conversations,” she said, about getting individuals to work together toward a common goal.

Dau emphasized parent-educator relationships as one avenue for that.

“We need to be partnering with [parents],” she said. “We shouldn’t force a kid to code-switch when they’re going home. … It should be a partnership where we’re working towards the same thing.”

Code-switching for students often looks like speaking one language at home and coming to school and feeling pressured to look or talk differently. She wants students to be able to feel valid as they are.

One major change she hopes parents and students will notice under her leadership, Dau said, is better communication.

“I’m probably a more public person than some superintendents might be,” she said.

She intends to be active on social media and host a new podcast to highlight happenings around the district.

In addition to an intense focus on academics, Dau said she also wants to create a positive culture for students and staff. That’s where inclusion comes in, too.

“I want to make it so that kids love coming to school,” she said. “But also our employees, I want them to love coming to work.”

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