BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
Sitting at a table Friday night at the Elliott Test Kitchen eating some of Kumar’s fresh-smooshed guacamole with chips, some hors d’oeuvre meatballs, and finger sandwiches with about 60 members of the Fort Madison Education Association and members of the Fort Madison School Board – something hit me.
…This is weird.
I was talking with a fellow reporter as we waited for Fort Madison School’s Superintendent Erin Slater to arrive. Slater, unbeknownst to her, was being recognized by teachers and the board for being selected by the Iowa State Education Association as a nominee for the Excellence in Education T.E.A.M. (Together Educator and Administrators Make it happen) Award. Teacher Rachelle Dravis concocted some substory about a state education official coming to update the district on this or that.
Slater thought she was coming as the opening act with her stump speech on why the district needs a new elementary school. Talk about preaching to the choir.
The reporter I was talking with mentioned the disassembling of Chapter 20 last year, and how animosity runs at an all-time high in some districts right now. Chapter 20 stripped bargaining power, other than wages, from the education associations at Iowa school districts.
But there doesn’t seem to be that animosity in this room. Not on this night.
I asked the mad scientist if she thought it was weird that this district and the administration and school board seem to be getting along so well in the wake of the changes of 2017.
“It’s not Erin’s fault that law was changed. She still has a job to do.”
If you ever want a straight answer on something, ask my wife.
With talk from a lot of major media outlets of teachers bailing on Iowa schools to head for greener pastures, this district has stayed intact. Some states, I think Minnesota is one, are actively recruiting from Iowa. So what has this group so arm-locked and tramping down the road to greater things, when others are playing Red Rover?
Slater worked the room getting hug after hug after being charmingly gullible enough to think this packed house eating Kumar’s food and drinking some of his wine, was there to hear a pitch on the bond referendum. She worked her way over to the media table and answered that question jam-packed with confidence, and a barely noticeable hint of emotion.
“It’s a huge honor and I have so much respect for everyone in this district. Everyone that puts our kids first… everyone,” she said.
“We have a made a distinct effort to sit around the table and collaborate. That comes from everybody. We want to promote that we work together and that it’s just for the betterment of our students. So we have a common goal. Chapter 20 did not change the collaborative spirit of this district.”
Board member Gayla Young, who’s a teacher in the Danville district, said Fort Madison is kind of charting its own path in the wake of the sweeping changes of the law.
“With all the changes with Chapter 20, I know of so many districts where the administration and the board and the teachers are at odds. Erin was able to take Chapter 20 and guide us through it.”
“They don’t feel this mentality of ‘us against them’ and they know she’s got everyone’s best interest at heart. She wants to do what’s best for kids, but also what’s best for the staff. I think one of the great things right now is her transparency. There’s no hidden agenda here. We’re putting it out there, and probably to me, that’s one of the biggest things we have going right now.”
Sitting through many hours of school board meetings, I see the status quo is not good enough…not even close. For certain, everything’s not perfect. But we’re in a growth mode here. If not in enrollment, most assuredly in our approach to students and their daily needs in and out of school. There’s a majority sense of fostering improvement, and dare I say, friendships with the employees of the district. Slater is extremely visible and engaged in the community. And the nomination forms of teachers in the district speak volumes to the future they see.
She’s trying to get a state-of-the-art preK-3 elementary school built to impact students first and foremost, and the community as a whole. She’s steering a ship that was launched before her time…on some pretty rocky seas. With the help of a great crew of advocates, the district almost landed that ship last year. It really is in the best interest to bring that ship home this year.
“What sets her apart is that we were behind in best practices that weren’t researched or implemented as a district,” said Dravis, reading from the nomination forms that secured the state selection for Slater.
“She came in when our educational community seemed to be falling behind in many ways. Our district is now working towards where highly effective districts already are. We are proud of where we are headed and looking forward to the changes to enhance the learning environments of all.”
“This is an honor. Gosh… I’m speechless,” Slater said. “Everybody here is a team and nobody does it alone. I feel very lucky to have landed here. We picked a great place… it’s a great match, and I can’t imagine not working with each and every one of you,” Slater told the room.
“I don’t know I deserve this. I’m just flattered and honored.”
The ISEA awards selection dinner will be held July 30 at Altoona Prairie Meadows Center.