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Award makes Wisconsin district a model for quality

Pewaukee School District wins Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award
Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers visits the Pewaukee School District to observe the Baldrige education criteria in action.
Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers visits the Pewaukee School District to observe the Baldrige education criteria in action.

The suburban Pewaukee School District in Wisconsin has won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the highest presidential honor given to U.S. organizations for high performance. It is the seventh public school district to earn the award for using results-driven business tactics to raise student achievement.

The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Improvement Act of 1987, named for the former secretary of commerce, laid out businesses standards to help more U.S. businesses compete more effectively in the global market. Congress created the award program that year to recognize strong businesses and schools; establish criteria for evaluating improvement efforts; and share best practices. It was expanded to include education in 1999.

The award’s standards for well-run schools include:

  • Strong administrator leadership
  • Increased student achievement
  • Strategic planning and developing action plans
  • Having a student and stakeholder focus that includes setting high expectations for students and aggressive community outreach
  • Measuring and analyzing data to support action
  • Ensuring teachers and staff can develop to their full potential and are achieving district objectives
  • Designing, managing and improving support processes

Any U.S. organization or school can apply for the award. Awards are managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the Department of Commerce. Applications are evaluated by a national board of private-sector business and quality experts who look for achievements and improvements in the seven categories listed above. Each applicant receives a written summary of their strengths and weaknesses. Winners are recognized as national leaders in their field and held up as an example to others.

The Pewaukee School District of 2,800 students started using the Baldrige criteria in 2007. “Our district has always had a strong commitment to strategic planning,” says Pewaukee Superintendent JoAnn Sternke. “It’s been wonderful for us to become more systematic in looking at improvements across all facets of our organization.”

The district, which received the award in November, has had one of the highest graduation rates in the state since 2008 and reached 99.5 percent for the 2012-13 school year. Pewaukee students’ ACT composite scores of 23 outperform both the state average of 22 and national average of 20.9. And the percentage of Pewaukee students attending a two- or four-year college increased from 79 percent in 2006-07 to 92 percent in 2011-12.

Inspired by the Baldrige standards, district leaders in 2007 created focus groups and annual surveys for employees, students, and parents to determine Pewaukee’s strengths and weaknesses. One staff survey indicated teachers wanted more recognition for good work. Administrators asked teachers how they wanted to be acknowledged for high performance—such as by personal note or private meeting—and awarded each teacher accordingly.

The surveys also led to positive change when students reported that bullying was a problem. District leaders updated bullying policies, and held assemblies and class lessons to help students understand the consequences of bullying. “We tried to respond where we saw opportunities for improvement, and we did see some changes after that,” Sternke says.

Administrators also work with teachers to bring district-level strategic goals to individual classrooms. In developing its strategy to improve literacy, district leaders asked teachers for their input.

“It’s up to us as leaders to create a great culture to increase learning, and create systems and processes that help people do their jobs well,” Sternke says. Administrators can create culture by “hiring really good people, and making sure the expectations as well as the gratitude for their work is very palpable,” she adds.