The Ottumwa Courier

March 16, 2013

Cardinal’s initiative to improve culture paying off

Courier Staff Writer

ELDON — There may be a risk in telling your school board you want to focus on how everyone gets along more than improving classroom performance. But the tactic may be paying off as more students sign up to attend Cardinal schools.

For years, more students open enrolled out of the Cardinal school district than came into the district. Last year, 73 kids left Cardinal and 89 came in. That may not sound like a big deal, but since each student gained brings in almost $6,000 in funding, the small district saw revenue rise more than $90,000 dollars.

And with class sizes already known for this year, the district said 82 students will attend school outside the district. But coming in from other districts are 104 kids.

Parents often have different reasons for open enrolling. One school may have more special education  classes or it may be closer to where Mom and Dad work. But in general, parents will only go to a district they’re comfortable with.

So a district that concentrates on a good attitude among students and staff may be appealing to parents. Cardinal school board president Mike Kayser said Superintendent Joel Pedersen’s idea sat well with the board.

“My take on it is by improving the culture, the students and the faculty are more motivated,” he said. “To me, you have to improve the culture before you can improve achievement.”

“I’m really a broken record, I know, but it’s relationships first, quality content second,” said Pedersen. “You have to change that culture.”

The school board president agreed, saying it’s easier to get people moving in a positive direction when everyone is on the same page. And when people feel good about school, they want to come more, whether they’re students or teachers. And that, he said, also leads to improved achievement.

“Culture isn’t just about [happy] notes in the mailbox. When you really transform culture,” said Pedersen, “you have to have difficult conversations, too. When people in a situation don’t handle things appropriately, we have to say that’s not how we’re going to act. But the next day, you tell them, ‘I’m here for you!’”

You must celebrate your successes, he said, but also have those honest discussions about what can be improved. That will help lead to things like better attendance, better test scores, better graduation rates.

“There’s a lot of positive reinforcement from the board and positive reinforcement from Joel,” Kayser said.

“We can’t be afraid to say relationships first,” Pedersen said. “Yes, when you do that, it’s taking a risk. But some of the best outcomes are from concentrating on what is most important. If you have the foundation of a culture of success, everything else falls into place.”