BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – One of the main cogs of the Fort Madison Middle School leadership team has submitted his resignation.
Brent Zirkel, the school’s assistant principal who conceptualized the school’s PACK program, is leaving to take a position with the Williamsburg School district.
Zirkel announced Tuesday that he was leaving the district to a position that will allow him to further utilize his bilingual expertise as well as his administrative certificate as an assistant principal at the Williamsburg Junior/Senior High. The school is a 7th-12th grade facility about 20 minutes west of Iowa City.
Andrew Troxel, a member of the district Teacher Leadership program and Andy Mitchell, the district’s former Activities Director also put in resignations this year. Troxel is going back to his alma mater in Wisconsin, and taking Fort Madison School Board member Jillian Troxel with him. Mitchell took a parallel job with the Atlantic, Iowa school district.
Zirkel said he is taking fond memories of the district with him and isn’t saying so long.
“My phone’s just been blowing up all day and I’m telling people this isn’t a goodbye. This is just a ‘See ya later’. I love this school district and the staff and students I’ve worked with and I love this community,” he said.
“What draws me there is they have a migrant population for about four months out of the year. My first master’s degree was English Language Learners and this position would give me a chance to utilize those skills.”
Zirkel was first hired in the district in 2004 as a Spanish teacher and then earned a master’s degree in bilingual education. When Greg Smith took over as principal, he encouraged him to get his administration certificate. After earning that certficate and going through an internship, Zirkel was offered the assistant principal’s position at the Fort Madison Middle School.
He said he was happy that he had teachers like Ryan Smith and Andrew Troxel to work with at the high school. He also credited Greg Smith with creating an environment where new ideas were no longer the exception, but the norm.
“I was so fortunate to be able to collaborate with Troxel, Greg Smith, and Ryan Smith. They were all very supportive and open to new ideas and that’s the only way to get better as an educator,” he said.
“You go through training and you learn one thing and then you get where the rubber meets the road on the job. Greg really created an environment where you can take risks and learn from them. By him doing that, I was able to start integrating technology to help our kids use their time more efficiently and effectively.”
Zirkel said one of his first impressions at the Middle School was the high quality of the staff.
“You have to have the right people in place and they have that there,” he said. “And that’s just not the teachers and the principal, but the custodians and the food service staff and other staff. When I came into the position there, it just had that family feel and I felt fortunate to be joining a family.”
The district had gone through several assistants before Zirkel got to FMMS and he said he wanted to bring some consistency to the job, and although he’s leaving after two years, he said progress was made even after two years, a lot of which started this past school year.
He credits Principal Todd Dirth with allowing him to take some risks and add to what Zirkel calls a “wholistic” approach to educating the students at the school. That approach he says addresses not only educational needs, but social and emotional needs as well.
“One of the things I’m very proud of is there is this wholistic approach to the student,” he said. “There’s a compassion you’ll find there, and I’d never seen that before where you program to help the kids learn about the social and emotional changes they are going through.”
He said the PACK program was designed to ramp up that portion of the educational process.
“The PACK piece is a response to trying to help the social and emotional needs of our students. To help them with character development and expand on those relationships already being built there,” Zirkel said. “We also looked at digital citizenship. All of our kids live a good portion of their life online and helping them learn how to conduct themselves. That illusion of anonymity is not how the Internet works, and helping them grow there was something that was important to us.”
The construction of the new middle school has resulted in yearly increases in the performance according to the Iowa Report Card which assesses public schools on achievements. But Zirkel said despite the improvements, the state assessments are an ever-moving target and until the state settles on assessment tools and then aligns curricula with those assessments, that number will remain hard to move.
He said he hopes action taken this year will result in better scores for all the districts.
“When they created that report card, it was like the goal line kept moving and there was no alignment. We have common core and even there the standards change year to year or every few years,” he said. “We don’t have an assessment system that’s aligned with common core. We’re teaching it, but the tests we’re grading aren’t correlated to common core. Next year the State of Iowa’s moving to Iowa Assessments and it should be an aligned assessment and that should be the first opportunity to know where our kids are, compared to what we’re teaching.”
Zirkel said he looks at the culture to determine a school’s success.
“Education is in a weird spot as we move from the industrial age through to the conceptual age. Our systems have lagged behind, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
He said staff such as Dirth, Stephanie Dobson, Michelle Bentler, and Brian Mendez are the catalyst behind the new culture at the Middle School.
“I call it Progress though Struggle. We were going outside our comfort zone, but it’s what we believe is best for kids. As we struggle through it, we find the benefits of it and then keep moving forward. We crawled, then walked, and now they’re running,” he said.
“I don’t think our community understands how lucky they are to have the leadership there they have – Stephanie Dobson, Todd Dirth – they are the rocks of the foundation there. They’ve been laying the groundwork there for 12 to 14 years to enable us to do programming pieces and other things. One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to do the management pieces before the instruction pieces. Through Todd I’ve learned a lot of the management so I can get around to the instruction.”