Director Wise: What I've learned from visiting 100 Iowa school districts
I have a spectacular view from my office in Des Moines; I overlook Iowa’s State Capitol and the World War II Memorial Plaza. This, however, isn’t my only view of the state. As I near the end of my second year as director of the Iowa Department of Education, I have now visited 100 of Iowa’s more than 300 public school districts. Along the way, I’ve learned a few important lessons.
Improvement happens at the intersection of data and relationships.
On a recent visit to Linn-Mar Community School District, I joined a Professional Learning Community (PLC) meeting in which the teachers, teacher leaders, and building principal conducted a student-by-student analysis of the effectiveness of their reading interventions. The team used both data from the early literacy assessments and knowledge of each student’s learning style to determine how to best meet the specific literacy development needs of each child. This approach embodies what I’ve seen in high-functioning school teams across the state: they take the time to create bonds with each other and with their students while simultaneously using assessment data to identify areas for improvement.
Iowa’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) system is having a positive impact on schools.
Iowa is changing the teaching profession for the better. Over the last four years, we have collectively worked to empower teachers to lead and to create more and better opportunities for collaboration. In every school I’ve visited, teacher leaders are using a combination of both individual coaching and systemic changes to professional development to improve student achievement. I’ve observed one-on-one coaching conversations in West Delaware, small-group meetings in Central Decatur, and school- and district-wide professional learning in Benton Community. Each school district truly owns its teacher leadership plan and uses a variety of approaches to strengthen teaching.
High-performing schools create a positive culture in which both teachers and students care about relationships and achievement. Schools like Garner Elementary in Iowa City and Cornell Elementary in the Saydel Community School District effectively utilize Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) systems to create safe, healthy, and caring learning environments for their students. They celebrate and acknowledge when students exhibit the attributes that strengthen their school culture.
Perry Community School District is just one of many I visited this year that intentionally builds community. On my visit, I was handed a card with the heading, “The Spirit of a Bluejay” with an acrostic poem: Pursues excellence, Embraces diversity, Recognizes individuals aren’t defined by their circumstances; Reflects pride in our schools; Yearns to serve others. This serves as a powerful daily reminder of the district’s expectations for its students.
One of my last visits of the school year was to Prairie Trail Elementary in Ankeny. If I showed a video of the visit and asked someone to guess when it was filmed, September would be a more likely response than May. Teachers were making every minute of instruction count; they were focused and engaged, and so were their students.
Community engagement strengthens schools.
Iowans care about their schools and when schools reach out, individuals and organizations are willing to help. In Marion, the Marion Economic Development Corporation is working closely with area schools and Kirkwood Community College to develop and retain talent. In Pella, Vermeer Corporation holds an annual career day for students and externships for teachers in the summer. And in Fort Madison, partners like the YMCA and Elliott Test Kitchen create learning opportunities for students that stretch beyond the school day.
Iowa students are becoming college and career ready.
Iowa’s new definition of college and career readiness emphasizes not only achieving proficiency in content knowledge, but also acquiring practical transition skills, developing key learning strategies, and building strong leadership skills. Each week, I see Iowa students embody this definition. In Charles City, I listened in awe as a team of eighth-graders described their project to earn bird habitat certification from the National Wildlife Federation. In Burlington, I participated in community service projects led by students as part of the annual Hound Town Days. In Gilbert, I watched as students and parent volunteers created a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall for the local Veterans Day program. And in Algona, I listened to high school students in the Link Crew describe how they took ownership of freshman orientation to improve the transition from eighth to ninth grade.
I’m extremely privileged to have the opportunity to visit schools across Iowa each week. I see great things happening for students in rural, urban and suburban settings. And as this school year draws to a close, I want to send a sincere thank you to all teachers, administrators, school boards and community members for all you do to continually strengthen the quality of education your students receive. I wish you all a summer filled with rest and reflection.