Reflections on Two Decades of Organized Chaos
By: David J. Wilkerson, Ph.D., Superintendent of Schools
On December 7, after more than 22 years of working in the Waukee Community School District, and over 35 years in public education, I walked out the door for the last time as the Superintendent of Waukee Schools.
It’s been quite the adventure. I used to have a sign behind my desk that said, “Pay no attention to the mess. All items are in a well-regulated and systematic state of confusion.” For me, it was to justify the piles of papers that seemed to stack up on my desk. They seemed to miraculously reproduce on their own whenever I ventured out of the office and into the schools.
A lot has changed in Waukee over the past two decades. In 1994, we were serving around 1,200 students in grades K-12 with 85 certified teachers. We graduated 68 seniors that spring. Today, we are serving approximately 10,000 students with 695 certified teachers, and we anticipate 550 graduates for the Class of 2017.
In 1994, the total assessed valuation of the school district was $230 million. Today, it is $3.4 billion. Our general fund operating budget in 1994 was around $8 million. Today, it’s $100 million. We opened the brand new Eason Elementary in the fall of 1994, way out in the middle of the country on a gravel road. It meant the district had three buildings to serve students. Today, we’re completing the Waukee Innovation and Learning Center, which brings our total school building count to 15.
Over the years, we’ve collaborated to help bring the YMCA to the district, to locate city parks next to school buildings, to relocate the Vison Soccer Academy, and participated in hundreds of partnerships with the business community across the metro.
First and foremost, our unwavering focus has been on providing a great quality education for the students and communities we serve. The academic achievements of our students and the steady upward trend in academic performance indicate that focus pays dividends.
As the district moves forward, it will continue to face challenges and opportunities. State funding challenges aren’t going away in the short term, continuing to place pressure on the district to maintain staffing levels at an acceptable level. The challenges and opportunities of growth will persist, with all indications that student enrollment will continue to increase at 500+ students per year.
Broader U.S. challenges also exist. Increasingly, it seems schools are looked to as the panacea for all of society’s ills. Over the years, we’ve looked to public schools to address and solve social issues like teen pregnancy, teen smoking, bullying, suicide prevention and obesity, and at the same time, we complain that our public schools aren’t performing at international levels. We ask more and expect more now from students than at any time in our history. Despite the criticisms leveled continuously against public schools since “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983, schools have delivered on the promise to educate ALL.
There are those who seem to want schools to look and act the same as when “we were kids.” Ignoring the fact that “when we were kids,” there was no such thing as the Internet, computers didn’t exist in schools, and the thought of a phone working without being wired directly to a wall was pure fantasy!
So please, drop the mantra of “back to the basics.” We need to support innovation and creativity and encourage students and staff to dream of what can be and provide them with the resources to chase those dreams. Innovation has been the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, and our schools need to foster innovation in all aspects of education—not try to revert back to a former time.
Please be patient and supportive with the new district administration. Give them the same support and commitment you’ve given me and the district over the years. Things may look and feel a little different, but that is a GOOD thing. Different doesn’t mean less than, it just means different. Fresh new eyes will bring fresh new experiences.
School boards come and go. In Waukee, I’ve had the privilege of working with a large number of individual board members, but they have ALL volunteered for the board for the sole purpose of supporting and guiding in a positive manner. We’ve been fortunate and blessed with great school boards. Please keep that tradition going.
I read recently that someone said school districts are like a book. School leaders write the chapter that encompasses their time there. Some chapters are longer than others, but we each write our own chapter. It’s time for a new chapter, and I’m excited and extremely optimistic that the Waukee Community School District will continue to lead the way, and provide awesome opportunities for students.
Thank you and God bless. I can’t begin to express what this district has meant to me or the amount of appreciation I have for all of you.