Cardinal High School

Courier file photo

OTTUMWA — For close to 20 years, the Cardinal school district was losing more students than it gained. Now all of that has changed.

Since 2007, the school has seen a 43 percent increase in student enrollment, and over the last five years the rate of enrollment has accelerated. Between 2016 and 2018, the district added close to 80 students every year. Twenty new teaching positions have been created since 2015, and the district’s overall workforce has nearly doubled.

Cardinal superintendent Joel Pedersen attributes much of that growth to the district’s culture, where continuous improvement and relationship-building between students and staff take top priority.

“Relationships are the foundation for everything we do at Cardinal,” he said. “It’s from how we greet kids and parents, it’s the body language we use in situations, believing that every interaction matters.”

Teachers at Cardinal are also expected to avoid using what Pedersen calls “bad classroom management techniques” like using sarcasm, arguing with students, or yelling. He believes that this positive-enforcement approach makes students more willing to listen or take to criticism and to be responsive to instruction.

The data seems to show it’s working. In 2017, the Iowa Department of Education ranked Cardinal Elementary eighth out of 400 Iowa elementary schools for reading improvement and Cardinal High School appeared on US News and World Report’s Best High Schools list in 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the district also met all standards mandated by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

It’s a vast improvement from just 10 years ago, when the school was among the five percent lowest achieving schools in the nation.

“We have a lot of things we’re not very good at,” Pedersen said. “But the best organizations are honest and okay about saying that.”

The district faces a number of challenges that are common to rural school districts across the state. Drawing teachers is difficult, but the district also has a large population of at-risk students who require extra support.

That means providing students with food, hygiene products, and helping them or their parents get access to medical care. Some students are provided with extra reading lessons, and when a child lacks access to transportation to or from school, the district steps in to help them find solutions.

“We are focused on the whole child, knowing that if something’s missing that they need on basic skills or life, that we’re going to get that fixed,” said Pedersen. “One could argue that schools weren’t created to do that, but we’re going to take that on because we think that we can’t teach them to the highest level unless all those basic needs are being met.”

Pedersen believes education to be a “great equalizer.” It provides students with opportunities they might never have had access to without.

One of the district’s initiatives that gives Pedersen an especial source of pride is its welding education partnership with Indian Hills. Cardinal students, as well as a few students from Fairfield and Van Buren County, are able to take a two year welding program through Indian Hills and receive a degree upon completion — all without an extra dollar being spent.

Graduates of the program have gone on to further training at other trade schools or straight to work at John Deere or other organizations.

“I’m not saying we don’t need doctors and teachers and lawyers and journalists and all that because we do,” Pedersen said. “But for some kiddos, we can get them into the trades: electricity, plumbing, welding, and do very, very well, and not have any college debt.”

It’s just one of many partnerships Cardinal has with local organizations. Other groups provide food or housing support. Others, like the Legacy Foundation, provide additional funding. $1.5 million in grants have been awarded to Cardinal since 2010, and the school has reinvested more than $11 million back into its campus and facilities.

Pedersen stressed that the Cardinal staff have made it all possible.

“I have really great people that work here,” he said. I have great teachers, great support staff, from food services to janitors to maintenance to busing, I have great principals, and we’re just continuing to create a special culture for kids and families.”

Jack Langland can be reached at


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