To be clear, Urbandale Community School District Superintendent Doug Stilwell does not want to reform the education system that is in place in Urbandale’s schools. Instead, he wants to transform it.
“There’s a difference,” he says. “It’s like building a plane that’s in flight.”
If all goes to plan, according to Stilwell and members of his staff, students from elementary school to high school will accept greater responsibility while piloting their primary education. Empowering students is one of the outcomes of the district’s “Quality Learner” program that Stilwell, in his second year as superintendent, has implemented with the help of teachers and principals throughout the district.
“We want to give students more ownership in their learning so that the learning is the reward, and it will motivate them to want to learn new things on their own,” he says.
Stilwell says he wants Urbandale students to understand the value of learning. To help accomplish that he wants them to have more autonomy, mastery and purpose in their education.
“Regarding purpose, we want them to ask questions of themselves like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ and, ‘Why do I need to know these things?’ That’s how we begin to fundamentally transform the system,” he says. “We want to nurture that innate sense of joy of learning throughout the district.”
The superintendent also understands that transforming a system involves change and that people by nature question or sometimes fear change. He says summer workshops like the two four-day events recently held that were attended by 157 Urbandale teachers help alleviate any potential anxiety educators might have about implementing the “Quality Learning” program.
“We’re trying to do this very slowly and organically. We’re preparing the soil, so to speak. We want to build it one piece at a time,” he says.
Jon Parrott and Ashley Mobley are among the many teachers in Urbandale who have embraced the district’s transformation, says Stilwell. Parrott teaches American History at Urbandale Middle School, where he has worked for 22 years. Mobley teaches first grade students at Valerius Elementary School, where she has worked for six years.
“We as teachers think that we need to have control over the classroom, but it’s about putting it back on the kids as part of the continual improvement process,” she says.
Last year, Mobley threw aside traditional classroom behavior like using assigned seating and desks. She even threw out her own desk to lead by example.
“The students work at tables together because it promotes sharing and working together. It also promotes problem solving and communication skills. It’s been great. I haven’t missed my desk,” she says.
Most importantly, Mobley is seeing firsthand the results of her collection and analysis of data compiled by using a matrix that is at the core of the “Quality Learning” program.
“The curriculum states that students need to learn certain things, but we can use different methods to teach it. We also use a lot more data to make decisions on what is working and what is not working when it comes to teaching kids,” she says.
Parrott says part of the process is teaching students not to work toward a high grade, but to truly understand what it is that they are learning in class. That kind of mindset also allows teachers to explore different ways to motivate students.
“I take data on all of the tests that I give because I want to shrink the pitch of the bell curve so that every student moves up and I can close the gaps between students. It allows me to examine how I teach,” he says. “Every student has different levels of comfort with different tasks based on their knowledge, skills and interest level. I gauge that with every student and try to find what works best for them.
“It’s about me doing everything I can to move students along that spectrum, and it’s about their ability to be a student that can take notes and extract information. It’s not really about getting the grade.”
Parrott says it is not uncommon for him to be teaching the same subject to three different groups of students learning the same materials in different ways.
“They might take different roads, but they all get there,” he says. “How I set up my class depends on the reactions I get.”
The middle school teacher says parents need not worry about students falling behind or not completing the work when given more autonomy. Last year, for example, he taught 155 students, and not one missed an assignment during the entire school year.
“I work with them every day to make sure that they are on task. Our motto is ‘Do something every day,’ ” he says. “They understand that it’s their learning, not mine.”
Parrott says that he has been using the matrix for three years, and it has made him a better teacher.
“This is not how I was taught to be a teacher. It’s not how we did things when I started teaching in 1987. But if I didn’t redefine myself, I’d have a hard time being successful as a teacher,” he says. “We have a fantastic staff that is dedicated to student improvement. It’s a process; it’s a journey. We’re still fine tuning what we’re doing, and each year we try to add something new.”
Parrott says the biggest motivation to embrace new teaching methods is the success of the students themselves. He recalled a story about a student who said she did not feel smart, even though she was a good student, until she found new ways to take control of her learning.
“When you hear from kids how this has helped them, as a teacher, how could you not want to be as effective as you possibly can?” he says. “If I can get out of the way and they can see things for themselves, there’s no telling what they can do.”
New principal at Karen Acres
Seventeen years of work as a middle school math and science teacher, at-risk coordinator, student counselor and associate principal paved the way for Lara Justmann to become the new principal at Karen Acres Elementary School in Urbandale. Just as she is about to embark on her first year of leading the students and staff at Karen Acres, she says she feels as though her career has come full circle.
“When I started out in school, I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Taking this job allows me to come to the age group that I really enjoy,” she says. “Not that I didn’t love middle school, but I’m excited to be working with young impressionable children, and it’s a great opportunity to do that.”
Justmann, who has worked in the Urbandale Community School District for 13 years, says she is looking forward to meeting the students, staff, parents and neighbors of Karen Acres in the weeks ahead. Before the first day of school on Aug. 20, she will have met with every teacher and will have organized an all-school assembly, picnic and series of teacher-parent meetings to be held during the first week of school as a way to encourage everyone to get to know one another so that they can help students succeed in class. Such efforts are part of the school’s theme for the new school year, “Learning is Job Number One.”
“We want to strengthen that feeling of community and sense of belonging and create a family atmosphere,” she says. “We also want to increase the level of communication we have with them.”
To help achieve those goals, Justmann has established a number of initiatives that range from collaborative team building projects to district approved curriculum changes that tie in with the state’s mandatory Iowa Core that help students learn “21st century skills.”
“We’re going to utilize Google’s calendar and Twitter to better improve communication with parents and to give them another way to give us feedback,” Justmann says. “We want Karen Acres to be a place where parents and members of the community have a sense of ownership and pride. It’s a special place and we want to be known for that.”
Justmann says Karen Acres will host “Words Their Way,” a new pilot program designed to help students in grades first and second become better spellers, readers and writers. The school will also pilot a new math program that the principal says will help educators determine what lessons work best with the Iowa Core and students.
“After talking with several teachers, I’ve learned that the staff and parents at Karen Acres are very committed to meeting the needs of the students. They’re ready to move forward in working together as a staff and analyzing the data that they will collect,” she says. “The data will tell us what we need to know in terms of how to make improvements.”
The school’s new principal is also looking forward to establishing “Literacy Families” where every staff member of the school will lead a small group of students to help them improve their communication skills and to reinforce the pillars of character.
“It’s just one of the many ways we can engage everyone in the building to work together,” Justmann says.