The Ames Community School District is in the midst of a rebrand. It is not just a rebrand that conjures up ideas of marketing techniques including changing logos (although that is part of it), but a change in the status quo of how the District conducts business. Branding is much more than just colors and fonts. It’s how people respond to your organization. It’s the style, voice, and reputation that an institution holds in the public. In other words, a brand carries an emotional weight.
Rebranding happens for a variety of reasons. One of the most common is the result of a leadership change. This summer marked Superintendent Jenny Risner’s one-year anniversary in Ames. The year has been memorable on a number of fronts but was the beginning of a fresh-eyes assessment on how the Ames Community School District operates both internally and externally, from buildings, classrooms, and our community.
Your Brand’s Purpose
One of the most important things a rebrand, or any change should do, is support an organization’s core message. Last fall, District administrators partnered with the Board of Directors during a work session to establish Board priorities. It provided the two groups an opportunity to share and align visions from a philosophical and practical standpoint. The result was the development of the District’s purpose and priorities.
Often times this type of poster-fodder is just that; framed and referenced on occasion. But since adopted, the purpose and priorities have breathed life into how the District operates. This includes the details of a nearly $80 million operating budget. Every year, superintendents across Iowa in every district present their budgets for approval. Every step of the way, Risner kept the Board informed of her intent with many members noting how great and transparent the process was this year.
Superintendent Risner recognized the need for deeper alignment across the system. “A common approach to curriculum, instruction, behavior management and support for students must be created and implemented with fidelity.” This will be the focus for Dr. Chad Dumas, Executive Director of Elementary Education, and Dr. Jeff Hawkins, Executive Director of Secondary Education.
A number of new positions have been created across the District to provide direct support to teachers and students. Each elementary building now has a full-time behavior interventionist and full-time counselor who is removed from the teaching rotation to ensure students are provided individual and group support. Two additional Student and Family Advocates for elementary schools and an additional school resource officer have been added as well.
Moreover, a focus on reducing elementary class size through a three-year plan begins this fall. Kindergarten class size has been reduced this year, which will be followed by first through fourth grades over the remaining two years. The middle school students are now supported by an additional associate principal, behavior interventionists, and other additional staff in an effort to reduce class size. Ames High School will continue to expand their Career and Technical Education courses with aligned pathways leading to industry certification in high demand job fields and expansion of core curricular course offerings.
Focus on Your Audience
A superintendent must establish a vision for the district, empower others, and be relentless in their commitment to students. This means making many difficult and courageous decisions that are not always popular. It’s a job that includes having a deep understanding of best educational practices, engaging in difficult conversations, and maintaining a robust and busy meeting schedule—all while focusing on her role as the staff’s coach, cheerleader and manager.
Risner wants to bring enthusiasm to the District by inspiring others to take ownership of their classrooms, buildings and outcomes. “Accountability comes from empowering people and allowing them to own the work they are doing,” said Risner. For her, this is especially true for her District directors and principals. “As superintendent, it is my job to challenge their thinking, ask probing questions and provide feedback, not to micromanage their tasks. I want to encourage my leaders to be confident decision-makers.” This mindset and approach is one way Risner wants to model leadership for her staff and the entire community of Ames.
Risner goes on to note that “one of the worst things we can do as a District is get stuck in neutral and not engage in the difficult work that must be done.” But accomplishing that work does not come easy. Changing the status quo, or how we have always done things, takes time. Risner consciously works with the School Board to communicate initiatives and meets often with them. She engaged in Listen and Learn sessions with building staff to gain their perspective. These sessions have provided valuable feedback that she shares with District leaders. These sessions have also reinforced that change is necessary.
It’s a bit cliche to say that education today is different than what it was when we grew up. It’s the classic “I walked to school uphill both ways” story. But the reality is that it is true. Education is different and so are our students, making a traditional approach to education outdated.
Once upon a time, rows of desks were the norm and rote memorization a viable instructional tool. Deadlines were also seen as a tangible way to determine skill acquisition. Those days are gone. All of our buildings, including the upcoming new high school, are designed with furniture and space that encourages collaboration and problem-solving.
“I’ve been amazed at some of the teachers in this District and how they engage students on a daily basis. They teach through an equity lens, providing activities that inspire and excite their students, while ensuring that students feel safe and honored. Students get to have a voice and choice in their learning,” said Risner.
Engage with the Community
Transparency is important in public education (or any business) because it is a key ingredient when establishing trust. When she speaks with parents, teachers, students, and the media, Risner has made it her position to talk openly about topics that need to be addressed in the District. It is a way for her to gain insight into what people think about a particular topic as well bring insight to challenges the District may face.
It’s important to remember the distinction between having open and honest conversations about a particular topic and official action. As it relates to every major decision, action always happens at the Board table. But information must be gathered, conversations must happen and staff must have an opportunity to research and make recommendations. This can seem like a lack of transparency when it is actually ensuring the Board is in the best position to make an informed decision. All school districts are subject to open records laws, and every substantial decision made in our District is enacted live on YouTube by the ACSD School Board. It’s this type of check and balance that makes public education transparent, but it doesn’t mean that the District is immune to rumors. Sometimes these rumors become hurtful to the organization and its progress towards ensuring equitable services, programs, and experiences for our students.
The Ames Community School District is currently in an enrollment boom. Open enrollment numbers continue to grow, as does the District in general. Many elementary schools are at capacity with other grades across other buildings also full. It’s a good problem to have, but one that must be addressed. One possible remedy may be a move toward “attendance centers,” an option that Superintendent Risner has talked about with the Board at an open-to-the-public work session, on the radio, and at times in one-to-one correspondence with parents, staff, and community members. As Risner points out, this is one of many options, but at this point, no actionable steps have been taken toward any one particular solution. Rather, the Board and staff will continue to explore options and strive to better understand the issue by performing diligent research and engaging in discussions during work sessions throughout the coming year.
Successful leaders embrace the challenge of gathering and synthesizing input from a variety of people. Superintendent Risner has quickly developed a reputation for opening her door to parents, staff, colleagues, and Ames business and community leaders. However, a regular open door policy alone will not achieve the District’s goals. Risner is determined to make room at the table for those who have been left out of the conversations in the past, and she is unafraid to invite those who have been excluded, because without an invitation these voices may remain silent. “I want to hear from people in our community who we haven’t heard from traditionally and whose voice has been marginalized.” Her insistence on accounting for all voices in our community is in direct alignment with the District’s priority to achieve equity and is another means by which Risner assures that all possible solutions to problems—as well as opportunities for the District and its students—are identified and considered.
Being Superintendent of Ames Schools is not a job, it is a lifestyle for Risner. It is a role she embraces with everything she does, and as a result, never considers herself off duty. Very late work nights and early morning meetings are the norm for her. She sets up breakfast meetings on the weekend and is always willing to offer her personal cell phone number to parents, staff or community members. It may not be a traditional approach to operating a school district, but the conversations are always authentic with the best interest of the School District and its students in mind.
If polled, many people would say that they are open to change. But the fact is that change is messy, feels uncomfortable, and takes time. Most of us don’t like it because it’s easier to operate on auto-pilot. But leaders explore what is best for their organization and start genuine conversations, even if it’s difficult. They set a vision, gather information, and engage with their community. Those are the elements of a rebrand.