Thursday, December 31, 2009

Through the Looking Glass: Educational Transformation at Van Meter

The Van Meter Community Schools is a K-12 District located in central Iowa, 22 miles west of the State Capital in Des Moines. Retail complex Jordan Creek Town Center, Wells Fargo Corporate Campus and new world headquarters of Aviva USA is located 12 miles east of the Van Meter Schools. In 2010, Microsoft is scheduled to begin building a $550 million “data farm” 11 miles east of the District. It is understood that developers own 1,800 acres in the District.

Van Meter is a true representation of Iowa with employment centered on farming and light manufacturing, mixed with folks commuting into the Metro for work. The District straddles I-80, and is in Dallas and Madison Counties. Van Meter is a K-12 1A district of 613 students, surrounded by 3A and 4A districts with student populations several time larger. In 2008, Dallas and Madison Counties were 2 of only 12 Iowa Counties that did not experience a population decrease. Madison County had an 11% increase and Dallas County a 47% increase. Four years ago it was projected that the Van Meter Schools, in ten years, could grow to a District of 5,000 students. Current economic conditions has paused growth for now, but it will come.

The potential for “run away” growth greatly concerned patrons, then VM Superintendent of Schools Greg DeTimmerman, and the Board of Education. Stakeholders did not want to become another “big box” factory model school. In 2005, “Open Enrollment” was closed and administration was charged with clearly focusing the District’s educational philosophy. The thinking being when growth came, new physical plants would be built to support the educational philosophy, not vice versa. Joining the Van Meter District in the fall of 2005 as the 7-12 Principal, my responsibility would be the secondary educational philosophy.

Van Meter Secondary School Journey
In the beginning, secondary staff efforts centered on looking both inward, as to what we were, and outward, as to what we needed to become so as to serve our students. We started the journey with everyone reading and processing Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. Staff members identified themselves with the three mice. Rich conversation followed. These discussions lead to the realization that we had to change our thinking and the way we served our students. We began to see the world and our students as they truly are, digital, plugged in, connected. Our next step was to identify the type of change we would seek.

As a staff we examined the two types of change identified by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (Walters 2004). “First Order Change” was an extension of the past, was within existing paradigms, consistent with prevailing norms and values, incremental, implemented with existing knowledge and skills by “experts”(consultants). “Second Order Change” is a break from the past, outside exciting paradigms, conflicts with prevailing norms and values, complex, requires new knowledge and skill sets, and is implemented by stakeholders.

In the winter of 2005, in a “go” or “no go” vote of secondary staff, the consensus was to embrace 2nd order change. We would go forward and break from the past, create new paradigms, and all understood that here would be conflicts and challenges. This would be complex and messy and that we would ALL have to learn new knowledge and concepts. We believed we could digest the research and make it operational, appreciating and valuing our relationship with Heartland AEA as a support and resource. They gave us the confidence to do it ourselves! One VM Secondary teacher joked, “We will now be flying the plane and building it at the same time."

It was in that moment that our thinking changed.

Over the next four years new learning took place and leadership capacity for change was built. The charge to think “outside of the box” was encouraged and supported by Board Members, administrators, teachers and students. A synchronicity emerged, attracting new thoughts and ideas.

Excitement continued in 2009 with my promotion to be Van Meter Superintendent. This provided an opportunity to bring in new leadership and thinking. Deron Durflinger, joining the District as the Secondary Principal, brought experience implementing and making operational 1:1 computer programs. He is a global, digital thinker! Adding Jen Sigrist as Director of Teaching and Learning was another positive step. An articulate presenter and reflective thinker, Jen’s responsibilities include quantifying and validating our educational innovations, the focus to measure and track academic achievement, and reporting to stakeholders and government officials. Her work is crucial for when we grow, and for others so as to replicate. Deron and Jen, compliment the outstanding staff in place at the elementary and secondary. We have the “right people on the bus."

At Van Meter, we stepped through the “looking glass”. There has been a fundamental shift of mind and ALL have been changed. Students, teachers, administration, board members, parents and district patrons now think differently. We see the world through a new lens, with new opportunities and possibilities. It is all very exciting! As we go forward, we seek others to share and collaborate with as well!

1 comment:

  1. Hi John
    Have been following some principals and supers. on Twitter over the last week. Very interesting threads.
    "Who moved My Cheese" great way to start change conversation. I have also kept up with all the MCREL and other ed.lab. materials over many years. Lots of valuable ideas.
    Interested in hearing how your 1:1 program is progressing.
    We are rolling out laptops in NSW. Very exciting times for us.