OXFORD– After three years as superintendent of the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) school district, Denise Schares announced her retirement in February, setting in motion a short but intense search for a replacement.
“It’s a transition point, and I think for the district it’s a good time to bring somebody in on this really, really tremendous opportunity and challenge of enrollment growth,” Schares said at the time. Reluctantly the school board of directors launched the search, hiring G. Tryon and Associates and charging the firm with finding a highly qualified individual in two months’ time.
Tim Kuehl had heard a rumor of an upcoming opening at CCA and when he saw the ad, he wasted no time applying. “The opening was one I was very interested in,” Kuehl said. He officially took over the position on Monday, July 1. “CCA has a very good reputation for academics, it’s a very progressive district and its located in a very nice, growing area.” Kuehl left the Gladbrook-Reinbeck school district where he’d been superintendent for five years. “CCA is easily three times bigger and quite the opposite of Gladbrook-Reinbeck,” he said noting while CCA’s enrollment continues to increase, his former district, like many across Iowa, continues to decline in enrollment.
CCA’s enrollment increase, which has been a topic of discussion for the school board for quite some time, has the potential to lead to a decade or more of construction projects for the district, depending on action taken on proposed new, expanded and/or renovated buildings. Kuehl said he finds the possibility, intriguing, and an exciting challenge. He believes the leadership of the board and the district’s administrative team will be key to the success of such projects.
Some district constituents have criticized the district for an apparent focus on bricks and mortar, or the construction of new buildings. Kuehl acknowledged that charge might be leveled again in the not-so-distant future. However, he said, “brick and mortar needs are driven by the population. The focus remains on providing student learning, though. With more and more kids, you have to have a place to educate them. We need these (new or expanded facilities) to serve our students.” He said in addition to growth within the district, there are still many who would like to open-enroll into the district from outside areas. But with both North Bend Elementary in North Liberty and Clear Creek Elementary in Oxford closed to open enrollment due to a lack of space, they are unable. “Three families have contacted just in the past two weeks (to open enroll).” Kuehl had to turn them away.
The desires of such families to open enroll, he said, “speaks well of what the district is doing and shows that it is well-respected. The constituents should feel good about that.” Kuehl said he was going to urge the board to come to a final decision on a course of action for addressing the space needs by the end of August with a potential bond issue vote in the spring of 2014. “The only wrong decision is doing nothing at this point.”
Educational space is not the only challenge facing Kuehl and the district as a whole. “We need to continue the evolution of education. We are responsible that every child learns,” he said. In what Kuehl called a huge shift, the focus is on ensuring that every kid gets it. With the understanding that every child is unique and has different learning styles and needs, he is not a fan of one-size-fits-all educational mandates. The district has already implemented Individual Education Plans (IEP) and Personal Learning Plans (PLP), putting the focus on the individual, with parent and educator input.
The district has been working toward implementation of the Iowa Core curriculum, which Kuehl said, “(has) some really good things to it.” However, there are still many questions regarding implementation, testing, and more, that Kuehl said need to be answered. Similarly,
Governor Terry Branstad’s controversial education reform package is, to Kuehl, a mixed bag.
“Some good, some bad,” he said. He remains hopeful for opportunities for top-notch teachers to have a direct impact on their students and fellow educators, and get some recognition for it. Critics of Branstad’s plan have argued the best teachers would be taken out of their classrooms to mentor and model teaching methods to struggling or inexperienced teachers, while substitutes taught their classes. Kuehl said there are different options that appear to be available to the school districts, and at this point, he wasn’t sure which direction his district will go.
“The devil is in the details, and right now it’s still as clear as mud. We have to look at funding per pupil, requirements and other factors to see what the benefits are. We have homework to do to see what we’ll do.” The bottom line on educational reform is simple, he said. “We want the best teachers possible for our kids.” He said. “We have great teachers, people are proud of them and our local schools. I don’t think Iowa education is a bad place to put your kids.”
An ongoing challenge for the district as a whole is a transition from a smaller rural district to a larger district with increasing population. “Tiffin and North Liberty are growing like crazy,” he noted. This changes the overall look of the district and makes even sharper the distinctions between lesser-populated communities such as Oxford and Amana. Keeping a large and diverse district united can be challenging, but Kuehl said, “(it helps to) make sure everybody sees you’re offering quality services to all students and it doesn’t matter which town you live in.” Kuehl added strong extra-curricular programs such as athletics help to unite the communities.
With much attention focused on the eastern end of the district due to the population growth, it is easy to overlook the western end in general and Amana in particular. Amana Elementary is a rarity in the district, being the only building with an abundance of unused space. Principal Ben Macumber has floated an initial proposal for an arts and technology magnet school to be established at Amana. Kuehl said the proposal is worth discussing. Even if such a center were not established, it would not mean the demise of the school. “There are no plans to close Amana Elementary for the foreseeable (10-20 year) future,” he said.
In addition to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes being emphasized in the schools, there is also a push for healthier students and wellness programs to be administered by the schools. CCA nurse Kathy Campbell is spearheading such a program, which measures the height and weight of students, and calculates their Body Mass Index (BMI). Kuehl was asked if having the schools weigh and measure students, with the potential to send dietary and exercise suggestions home to the parents, was a proper role of the school.
“Is sex education, drivers’ education and drug education a proper role?” he asked backing response. “Schools are a reflection of society. All of these things have been added to our plates.” Kuehl said meeting the demands of federal and state mandates with the desires and sensibilities of the parents can be a delicate balancing act. But at the heart of it all, he added, “we’re about the whole child, and more and more we’re dealing with kids with more and more needs. All parents love their kids and want them to be successful. Our job is to support the kids and sometimes to support the parents too.”
Kuehl credits the positive influences of various teachers and coaches in his formative years for his pursuing education as a career. “It seemed like a good path to follow.” The Elkader native attended and graduated from Wartburg College as an elementary education major and began his teaching career in Columbus Junction. He had served as a principal at every level, as well as curriculum director, before taking the superintendent position at Gladbrook-Reinbeck. Kuehl has a wife (Chris) and three children, Callie, Brady and Saari.
In his short time at CCA, Kuehl said he was most impressed with, the quality of the people here, and the desire to be the best, which he finds to be a challenging and fun thing to pursue. Kuehl said he has no immediate plans for any sweeping or otherwise major changes. “We’ve got to do something with the facilities,” he said. Overall though, he said, the system isn’t broken.
“We’ve got strong people in place, and there are good things going on,” he said, but acknowledged the pressure is on. “Don’t drop the ball. It’s not going to be boring.”