Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series that examines the state of the three major school districts in Columbus. Today's story focuses on Columbus Public. See Friday and Tuesday editions for stories on Scotus and Lakeview, respectively.
In a way, the new school year is like a rebirth for Troy Loeffelholz and his district.
The Columbus Public Schools superintendent entered his 10th year at the helm of the public education system and 32nd overall in the field by bringing to fruition a plan that has been in the works for about two years.
“For me, it was time to re-energize. I love Columbus, my family loves Columbus,” he said, noting many superintendents leave districts after five or six years to give themselves a natural opportunity to reinvent their leadership approach. “I want to stay here and help Columbus grow, help Columbus continue to be successful.”
Loeffelholz recently announced to CPS staff his intention to form community focus groups this year that will help dictate the values CPS lives by going forward. It stems from a leadership transformation class (InitiativeOne) that involved a three-hour monthly webinar and two classes at the company’s headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He participated in the class with fellow Nebraska education leaders in spring 2017.
The concept was to see if you could identify what you value because every decision one makes should directly reflect your values, he noted. CPS has long stood by its mission statement of “Engaging All Learners To Achieve Success,” but the superintendent said the time has come to really determine what that means. He stressed that all of the hardworking people in the district strive to achieve the same goal of success but perhaps go about it in different ways.
“Let’s get us all on the same page. ‘Engaging All Learners To Achieve Success’ - is that still our mission statement?” he said. “I think it’s time to have that conversation because that was here when I got here and so you always revisit that ... I just felt like it was time for me to reinvent my leadership style, and to reinvent my leadership style I need to know what everybody is thinking.”
Loeffelholz got the ball rolling last fall, having district administration identify from a list their most important values. It was then introduced to teachers in the winter, followed by support staff and the CPS Board of Education. All participants then had to narrow down their list from 10 to five. Out of that, an average consensus was formed.
“Remarkably, I mean overwhelmingly, family/relationships, helping others, integrity, honesty and faith were the top five,” he said.
Now that CPS leaders know the values that matter most to those within the district, the superintendent wants to figure out how CPS makes those concepts actually work so that there is a clear path to success. That’s where the focus groups come in. Loeffelholz said he wants people from all walks of life, such as parents and civic leaders, to be part of the focus groups with him to explore the top values and figure out how they apply to the district.
Plans are still being worked on for the focus groups, which he said will likely meet monthly when they get started, with no particular set agenda.
“At the end of the school year, I would just like to know these are the characteristics we value and how we can better apply them,” he said, adding that CPS will make an announcement in the future about how people can participate. “Family/relationships is a big one – but what does that look like? I want the focus groups to really dig into what that means and what it looks like for us.”
Admittedly, Loeffelholz acknowledged last school year was tough for CPS as it lost two staff members and a student to cancer. There were also two unexpected student deaths.
But like always, the new school year brings excitement that’s shared throughout the district. All CPS staff members took part in the CPS convocation about two weeks ago at Columbus High School. Dave Weber, a motivational keynote speaker and leadership training expert, returned to town and wowed the crowd with his talk about leadership and engaging students in the classroom.
Sandi Seckel, a second-grade teacher at West Park Elementary in her 38th year teaching in CPS, said the convocation was inspiring and highly enjoyable.
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“There are no better kids to teach than Discoverers,” she said. “I was just focused so much at the convocation on all the positives.”
She said it was quite the experience as teachers and other staff got out of their cars in the high school parking lot and walked into the building to be greeted by administration.
“It just set the feeling and tone for not only the day but hopefully the year,” she said.
Andrea Smejkal, a biology teacher at CHS, said Weber’s chat touched on all the right things to kick off the new school year.
“Dave Weber is a phenomenal speaker, very energetic and an inspirational, great storyteller,” she said.
Seckel also highlighted Weber’s speech and something specific he stated: “Our words impact relationships, relationships impact culture and culture impacts results.” It got her thinking about something she noted Loeffelholz has said religiously for the last decade.
“Since Dr. Loeffelholz has been here, he has always said, ‘Learn what you can to be the best teacher you can be, and if we teach well and a create a positive climate in our rooms, in our schools and in our district, the test scores will take care of themselves over time.’ That really just makes sense to me.”
Like the community, CPS has continued to expand and evolve. It has grown by a full-grade level in the last 10 years, according to the superintendent, which equates to 300-350 kids. The district also welcomed more than 85 new teachers and other staff members this year, which the superintendent said should complement veteran CPS staffers nicely.
The public school district continues to prioritize safety and security, with Loeffelholz stressing his hope that students report concerns and suspicious activity as they’re the first and best line of defense.
CPS is still developing efforts on the early childhood center at the old Kramer site on top of working on continuous improvement plans in all schools based on what staff feel are the gaps in reading, math and writing to help improve student learning.
There are undoubtedly challenges and excitement in the years ahead for the top Discoverer and his team, but he embraces it all.
“Thirty-two years and I love coming to school every day, every year,” Loeffelholz said, with a big smile on a recent afternoon from inside his office. “It goes back to the old adage that when it becomes work, maybe it’s time to rethink elsewhere. You should always come to your job not thinking it’s work; it should be something you enjoy doing.
“If I ever got to the point I wasn’t enjoying it, it would be time to go. But I’m not there yet. I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.