BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Community School boards usually operate from a warm room a couple times a month, obey Robert’s Rules of Order, handle personnel issues, give the superintendent direction and call it day.
But Fort Madison Community School District’s current board members are taking things to a whole new level…and putting their money where their mouth is.
About two years ago, Board President Timm Lamb approached the Iowa Association of School Boards about how to bring about educating the school board on becoming better leaders and helping teachers drive excellence in learning and teaching.
“When I became president I had been on the board about five years and never had any workshops in that time,” Lamb said Tuesday. “As a teacher in the district we always had workshops and I just thought we needed to bring in workshops for the board for learning sessions.”
So Lamb reached out to the IASB and its Leadership Development Director Harry Heiligenthal, who has worked with about 25 different school districts on leadership development and bringing school boards into a more interactive role with the learning experience in Iowa schools.
“We needed to know what we’re to be doing as a board. So we brought Harry in and one of the first sessions we had him explain test scores,” Lamb said. “We got test results and data but no one knew what it all meant. Harry explained those scores to us and it was a real eye opener for me and the board. We were doing a lot better than we thought.”
Since that time the board has had Heiligenthal back two more times and Lamb said each time he comes there is a lot of information thrown at the board, but he said in the end this will result in a more streamlined goal-setting process that incorporates, teachers, students, the community and the board.
“We were pretty much doing business meetings and nothing else,” Lamb said. “This will help define our role as a board and how we can set better teaching and learning goals. My purpose was I thought the board needed to learn more about what our goal is and it’s morphed into this professional development program.”
The only cost to the school district to this point has been for Heiligenthal to travel to Fort Madison, and Lamb said it’s well worth that cost.
Heiligenthal said the board designated five or six work sessions over the course of the year and dedicated full evening work sessions.
“They said ‘Ok, lets go to school on what’s known from the Board Leadership programs, especially Lighthouse and apply that to our board,” he said.
“Their heart to me is in the right place. They want to squeeze every inch out of their leadership to make the biggest difference they can for the kids. And part of what you look for is that willing heart. That’s the strongest thing I see they have going for themselves. It’s a great time for them with a new superintendent and the new Curriculum Director. It’s a terrific opportunity for that whole leadership group to get focused on what’s going to help their district.”
The Lighthouse of Leadership for Learning program is based on research-based practices or habits that make a difference, especially when it comes to improved teacher learning. Up to about 15 years ago, the year 2000 give or take, most of the information of leadership of boards, when it came to learning, was theory and interesting ideas. Not a lot of study. So the IASB, at that point conducted some original research, not cause and effect, but original research, Heiligenthal said.
He said the name Lighthouse came from the principle of a guiding light..of showing people the right direction to go.
“I’m really excited about the direction. I’ve spoken with the board and I’ve talked to some teachers and they are excited we’re doing some of the same things they are doing,” Lamb said.
Superintendent Erin Slater said the program focuses on seven areas: Shared leadership, continuous improvement and shared decision-making, ability to create and sustain, supportive workplace for staff, staff development, support for school sites through data and information, and community involvement.
“Those are the tenants of the conditions that need to exist for positive school renewal,” Slater said.
“Harry is working with our school board to help it understand that we want to focus on that improvement and renewal. In theory the school board sets the district goals, the SIAC comes up with ideas and ways to support those goals so you don’t have different goals all over the place. That’s too chaotic and things don’t get done that way.”
Because of the ramped up efforts of the board and the district administration, six board members were recently honored at the IASB annual convention in November. Board members Lamb, Tim Wondra, Dianne Hope, Carol Ross, Gayla Young and Lois DiPrima were all honored individually for engaging in activity above the traditional board duties. The entire FMCSD board was also honored for their efforts.