Community Input Drives District Success
From a visitor's first click, the Whitefish (Mont.) School District's home page exudes community pride. Visitors learn that Whitefish is a tourist town - home to the acclaimed ski resort at Big Mountain and sundry seasonal outdoor activities-and that drivers pass through the heart of the district as they make their way toward Glacier National Park. And according to Jerry L. House, Whitefish School District's superintendent, not only is the quality of life beautiful in that part of Montana, but there are more fish than people.
But House says that Whitefish's true pride comes from the town's 6,800 residents. They, along with thriving businesses, supply the ample tax base that allows the school district to offer a comprehensive curriculum based on a strategic plan that was not only brought to community members through forums for their opinions but was structured around the community's input. "I'm a fan of community forums," says House. "It's people talking to people."
This forward-thinking forum format for involving the community is one reason House was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). House's "hometown" hospitality, open communication and self-described near-obsessive dedication to giving residents a voice in the school system has helped advance the district's strategic plan as it readies Whitefish's greatest natural resource - its high school graduates - for life outside of utopia.
"My model is of collaboration. I've been told it's almost one of my greatest faults," says House, but he's dedicated to bringing together the community to help guide the future of his school district through task forces and forums that bring administrators, board members and Whitefish residents together to solve problems and promote forward progress.
The first of House's forums was designed around creating the district's strategic plan. "Our forum began by planning sessions during November, and the whole process was completed by the end of March. Several meetings were held, and as a result our community refl ection was seen, heard, felt and, most importantly, became the external piece missing from our district's strategic plan."
House says the district developed its "study circles" after a concept from a group in South Carolina that actually developed the design. "From that concept, invitations and participants were solicited from all walks of our community."
House was named Montana's State Superintendent of the Year, an award co-sponsored by the AASA and ARAMARK Education. "It's so humbling to represent the finest administrators in Montana. It gives you the impetus to do some other things."
Those other things involve using his effective models for bringing the public into the district's decision-making processes. House and a school board member are hosting a public forum to introduce and question candidates for Montana's superintendent of public instruction, a position within the state's Office of Public Instruction. "Focus on Education" will be the subject, says House, where in a group setting community members will listen to candidates' perspectives on No Child Left Behind, Montana schools' finances and curriculum, and in a Q&A format have the chance to pose questions.
Says House of his role, "Being State Superintendent of the Year means doing things at the state level, which is necessary now." Additionally, House will return to his own high school in Issaquah, Wash., to use his AASA-granted $500 to establish a scholarship so that struggling, at-risk students like he was will feel like they have some support.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.