In Northwestern Iowa, the Storm Lake Community School District has a lot to celebrate this year. For years, the district’s superintendent has focused much of her work on family engagement, communication and helping students see their potential through their mentors and educators. And because of her intentional leadership philosophy, she’s been named Iowa’s 2023-24 Superintendent of the Year. Meet Stacey Cole.
Storm Lake is incredibly diverse: 87% are students of color, with the largest population being Latinx; nearly 53% of students are English learners; about 7% are migrant students.
Additionally, many of their immigrant students are refugees who have spent time in refugee camps.
“So here we are,” says Cole. “We’re super grateful that we get to serve families who are here making a better life for their kids.”
District Administration sat down with Cole to celebrate her accomplishment and learn more about her leadership philosophies and her priorities for the remainder of the school year.
Note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What inspired you to enter the superintendency? Who were your mentors?
Boy, I’m not going to lie. I kind of came kicking and screaming into the superintendency. I got the degree thinking that I wanted to be in the teaching and learning domain in a central office. And I thought if I had that degree, it would make me more marketable.
It wasn’t until this particular position came open that I decided to throw my name in the hat, and if I got the chance to interview, I thought I would interview and just see if it was something that I was interested in. And I have to be honest, I didn’t love it my first couple of years. I have a mentor in a neighboring district who said, “You just moved into someone else’s house. You have to move the furniture around. You have to take out the wall between your kitchen and your dining room. You have to move in and make it your house before it truly feels like it’s yours.”
And I think I’ve done that over the last six years. Now it feels like my house. I’ve also been lucky to have been in a national AASA (The School Superintendents Association) cohort over the last couple of years where I have some mentors. I would watch them constantly and see what they’re doing and try to emulate it. And, of course, I’ve had some other mentors along the way.
You’ve prioritized family engagement and communication since you first arrived at Storm Lake. What does that look like to you and why is it so important?
I’ll start with why it’s so important. You know our demographics, so we like to call ourselves a small town in a big world. It’s a big world, but we are a small town and we’ve got that big world in this small town, right? We often tell our kids there are very few places that are as small as we are, about 13,000 people, but we have all these nations represented within our community.
Our Latinx population is dominant, but then once you’re past that, we don’t really have a dominant demographic. So, connecting with families in ways that make sense for the families and within that community is really important to us.
I look at moms who are from across the world. They have taken the biggest leap of faith. They trusted that if they brought their kids into this country that they knew very little about they would have a better life. If those moms believe that to be true, I want to help make that true.
In order to do that, we have to connect with them. We have to know them as our neighbors. I’m serving friends, that’s what I’m doing. And it brings a whole different mindset to the game. We do this in a variety of different ways.
We’ve worked extensively with Learning Heroes and thought about how important it is that we help families understand their target. Where is your child and how do you help your child meet their target, or, what do you do now that your child has met that target?
Storm Lake Community School District Superintendent Stacey Cole on working with families to improve student outcomes.
Looking back on your six years at Storm Lake, what are some of your proudest accomplishments?
We were one of the school districts in the state of Iowa that received a grant to do teacher apprentices, which has allowed us to match our teaching demographics to our student demographics. We haven’t had a way prior to this grant to help people achieve dreams of becoming a teacher, or even to dream about becoming a teacher.
We have 78 people now in our consortium, and, to put that in perspective, we have about 450 employees total, but 78 are working on getting their degrees. We’ve reached out to people who have lived in our community who have raised their kids here and have worked for us and said, “I know that you might not have ever thought that you could be the one in front of the classroom, but we would like you to consider not being the support, but instead being the lead.”
It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to work on, but when all of those folks end up getting their teaching licenses and our students can truly see themselves represented in our classrooms, that’ll be a dream come true for me. It’s really important to me that our kids see themselves represented in our certified staff when we hire our first administrator of color.
You’re Iowa’s Superintendent of the Year. What’s next? Do you have any goals that are unfinished at the moment, either professionally or for your district specifically?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually. We would like to be a leader in the nation on competency-based education. The kids that we serve, especially our first-generation high school kids, sometimes it’s difficult for them to see the value of getting that high school diploma. The jobs their parents have at the local packing plants don’t require a high school diploma. And for our kids, it’s hard. The language is hard, the content is difficult, and sometimes it has no relevance to their lived experiences.
We see a lot of kids realize that they can make decent money if they just leave school and hop over to the packing plant. They need workers, so why would they stay in school?
So we’re looking at competency-based education as a way to help our kids excel and potentially accelerate their experience in high school.